"She Doesn't Look Like She Has a Disability..." Handling Accommodation Requests from Employees with Mental Health Disabilities

by Lana L. Rupprecht, Esq. - AVP Product Compliance

June 10, 2024


The month of May flew by. We were so busy with all the PWFA and PFML activity, we did not post this blog in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month. Well, better late than never!

Employers continue to be challenged with identifying and managing employees who have mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

How should employers handle accommodation requests from employees with mental impairments?

Consider the following:

A long-term employee has recently shown significant performance decline, so you suggest a performance improvement plan. In response, she begins to cry and seems to have trouble breathing. You tell her to go home for the day, and you will resume discussions tomorrow. The employee calls the next day asking for time off because she is "depressed and stressed" and states she will need workplace adjustments upon her return.

Question 1: Is the employee's statement that she is depressed and stressed sufficient to be considered a request for a reasonable accommodation under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

  • Yes. Feeling "depressed and stressed" is her way of stating she has a medical condition.
  • No. The statement, by itself, is too vague to trigger the ADA.

Answer: Yes. The employee has requested a change at work (time off and a future workplace accommodation) for a reason related to a medical condition. This is sufficient to be considered a request for an accommodation, which triggers an ADA analysis, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). See, Enforcement Guidance on the ADA and Psychiatric Disabilities, Question 17. https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/enforcement-guidance-ada-and-psychiatric-disabilities

Question 2: Can you request additional medical information to support her request under the ADA?

  • Yes. The need for the accommodations requested is not obvious so far.
  • No. The ADA prohibits this request as this is an unlawful medical examination.

Answer: Yes. Although the employee's statement that she feels depressed and stressed is sufficient notice that she has requested an accommodation under the ADA, the need for an accommodation is not obvious. You may request reasonable documentation that the employee has a disability within the meaning of the ADA and what specific accommodation the employee is requesting. See, Enforcement Guidance on the ADA and Psychiatric Disabilities, Question 21. https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/enforcement-guidance-ada-and-psychiatric-disabilities

Question 3: Upon returning from leave, the employee requests various workplace accommodations so she can perform her job, including the ability to tape-record all work-related meetings. This request violates internal confidentiality policies. Assuming the employee does have a disability as defined by the ADA, are you required to offer this as an accommodation?

  • Yes; because the ADA may require a modification of workplace policy and/or supervisory methods.
  • No; provided you offer an alternative, reasonable accommodation.

Answer: No, but the employer should engage in the interactive process and offer an alternative, reasonable accommodation. Employees are not entitled to the accommodation of their choice, only to a reasonable accommodation. See Norwood v. United Parcel Services, Inc. 10th Cir. January 17, 2023. Can be located at: Norwood v. United Parcel Service, No. 21-3145 (10th Cir. 2023) :: Justia

Practical Tips

Identifying that an employee has a mental disability without violating the ADA is tricky. Here are some pointers to consider:

  • Make sure the employee has requested an accommodation. Do not make assumptions. Once the employee asks for an accommodation in the workplace, the door is open for discussion.
  • If the employer identifies performance issues before the employee requests an accommodation or discloses a mental impairment, deal with those performance issues in accordance with the usual workplace rules and policies.
  • If the employer is concerned about a mental health disability, consider making a simple inquiry like, "I notice you are having some difficulties performing your job. How can we help you?" This will enable further discussion without creating an impression that the employer regards the employee as disabled, which is an area of possible liability.

Guidance and Resources

The following are additional resources and information on this important issue.

Reliance Matrix Can Help!

Reliance Matrix offers employers federal and state leave administration and accommodation services, including disability accommodations under the ADA and as applicable, corresponding state laws. For more information, contact your Reliance Matrix account manager or send us a message to [email protected].