As employers seek new ways to connect workers with the mental-health help they need, experts discuss possible workplace issues and some accommodations associated with depression and anxiety.
By Christina Nevins
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 16 million Americans experienced at least one major depressive episode in the last year, and 42 million have an anxiety disorder, including social phobia, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Symptoms of these common disorders can dramatically affect people's everyday lives. For example, depression can cause changes in sleep patterns and appetite, lack of concentration, loss of energy, lack of interest, and low self-esteem. Anxiety may result in feelings of dread, restlessness, irritability, shortness of breath, fatigue and insomnia.
These symptoms may also cause problems on the job. Employees often have difficulty attending work consistently. They may experience fatigue and have difficulty managing stress and completing tasks, and there may be greater difficulty interacting with coworkers and working effectively with supervisors and managers.
In a recent webinar from the Job Accommodation Network, principal consultant Linda Batiste revealed that the majority of questions fielded by the organization concern these two related disorders. Employers and employees alike contact JAN for accommodation ideas to help with work limitations resulting from the disorders.
Sarah Small, a JAN consultant, explained that the degree of limitation varies among individuals. To illustrate this point, the JAN consultants discussed possible issues associated with depression and anxiety, provided accommodation ideas and shared examples involving the limitations they presented.
Upon returning to civilian work, a veteran with PTSD was assigned to work in a cubicle in an office setting. Because of the cubicle's placement, the veteran had no choice but to have his back to the opening, which caused him to have flashbacks and disrupted his ability to concentrate. To accommodate him, his employer attached a mirror to his computer so that he could see when coworkers entered his work space from behind.
Small explained that other possibilities for reducing distractions in the work area include increasing natural lighting or providing full-spectrum lighting in the office, dividing large assignments into small tasks or goals, using auditory or written cues as appropriate, restructuring the job to include only essential functions, and providing memory aids, if needed.
Small also provided an example of an elementary school teacher who experienced temporary but extreme fatigue due to both a change in medication and the onset of winter. The teacher was accommodated by the removal of his early and late bus duties, causing no hardship to the employer and greatly reducing the teacher's fatigue on the job.
Expanding upon other accommodation ideas to address fatigue, Small suggested allowing a flexible work environment, providing a goal-oriented workload, reducing or eliminating physical exertion and workplace stress, implementing ergonomic workstation designs, and regulating temperature and lighting in the work area.
Melanie Whetzel, another JAN consultant, explained that they frequently get questions about service and emotional support animals as accommodations for managing depression and anxiety in the workplace. She explained that when an employee requests a service or emotional support animal, it should be moved through the interactive process just as any other accommodation request would be.
Whetzel provided an example of a new employee who had a service animal for PTSD. The employee's trauma stemmed from her having been attacked from behind, and her dog was trained to emit a low growl to alert her whenever someone was approaching her from that direction. A co-worker complained that the dog was aggressive.
Communication with the employee and her co-workers was vital at this point, Whetzel stated. The employer invited the dog's trainer to join them in a meeting. The trainer explained that the dog's growling was not normal aggression. Rather, he was trained to growl as part of his task of alerting the employee that someone was coming up behind her.
Whetzel emphasized, however, that employers are entitled to expect a certain level of behavior or conduct from a service or emotional support animal in the workplace. For example, if a dog appears aggressive, and it is not part of his training, an employer has the right to demand the dog leave the workplace until he has been sufficiently trained.
Small stated that the most common question they receive is how to reduce stress in the workplace. She explained that there is "no one magic answer." The key, she said, is to consider what an individual's triggers are. "If you can narrow down what exactly is causing them to feel stress," she stated, "that can point you in the direction of what types of accommodations might be helpful."
Christina Nevins, Esq., is cyberFEDS® legal editor. Send questions or comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.