Finding accommodations for mental health in the workplace

Before COVID-19 hit, I felt extremely stressed at work and pushed to my limits emotionally, to the point that I thought I might have an anxiety disorder. I have regularly experienced panic attacks, feelings of dread, and difficulty concentrating, but have never spoken to a healthcare professional. I have had anxiety about the virus itself and am juggling high pressure work while taking care of two young children who are in school on Zoom. I think my symptoms are worse now than before the pandemic. I worry about how I will readjust myself once I am asked to physically return to the office and how my anxiety will affect my performance. Do I have any options that could facilitate my return to work?


Thank you for writing to us on this important and personal matter. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic can be described as a global traumatic event that has created unique strains on many people while exacerbating pre-existing mental health issues. This is especially serious in working mothers like you who suffer from anxiety.

The general stress and anxiety that we all feel from time to time regarding work, family life and, yes, even the pandemic, is not a handicap under California law. However, anxiety disorders, depression and related mental health issues can constitute disabilities under the law. If your employer employs five or more people and you are considered a qualified disabled person under the Employment and Housing Equity Act (Labor Cal. To be a “qualified disabled person” you must meet skills, experience, education and work requirements and be able to perform the essential functions of your job with or without reasonable accommodation.

If it turns out that you have a mental health problem that affects your ability to perform your essential functions, it is important to notify your employer as soon as possible if you wish to explore the possibilities of adaptation in the workplace. of work. This should be written down whenever possible.

Once an employer receives the notice, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act requires the employer to engage in an interactive process with the employee to explore reasonable accommodations that would help the employee perform the duties. essential to his work. The keyword is “reasonable”. What is considered reasonable? After the year we just had, the answer is not as clear as it once was.

The most obvious change is the organization of working from home. Statewide regulations surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have forced employers to experiment with work-from-home arrangements. Some businesses failed, some prospered, and others were simply fixed. Each work environment is unique and each employer has had to adapt to the pandemic in their own way. While accommodations for working from home may have been impractical in early 2020, they can now be seen as a more reasonable option if an employer were able to successfully adopt a work-from-home business model. Work-from-home options after the pandemic won’t be achievable for all businesses, however, and you shouldn’t assume that work-from-home accommodation is necessarily reasonable for your employer. Employers cannot be forced to extend accommodations that would cause their business undue hardship or significantly disrupt operations.

While working from home part time or full time may be an option, reasonable accommodation can take many other forms. It may take a few experiments before you and your employer decide on something that is best for you. Common accommodations for mental health issues may include flexible hours, intermittent time off allowing the employee to attend health appointments, frequent breaks, removal of distractions, a task reminder system, and / or a quieter working environment. While you can suggest reasonable accommodations specific to your situation during the interactive process, employers are not obligated to make all the accommodations you may suggest. It can often be more difficult to find workplace accommodations that work for both employer and employee when dealing with a mental health disability versus a physical one, so it is important to remain flexible and open-minded when engaging in interactivity. treat.

It’s also important to know that even if they don’t choose to do so, employers have the right to seek medical clearance from healthcare providers, which should indicate existing medical restrictions. This will help employers determine what accommodations they can and cannot reasonably accommodate. The interactive process is a two-way street and both parties must engage in good faith. If you find that your employer willfully ignores your requests for reasonable accommodation, refuses to engage in the interactive process, or creates unnecessary obstacles for you during the interactive process, contact a lawyer to fully understand your rights.

Christopher B. Dolan is the owner of the law firm Dolan, PC. Vanessa C. Deniston is a Senior Partner in our Oakland office. We serve clients throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and California from our offices in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. Email your questions and topics for future articles to: [email protected]

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John McTaggart

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