The workplace provides a fertile source for complaints regarding stress. A growing number of employees are claiming that the workplace imposes so much stress that they should be considered "disabled" and provided with reasonable accommodation within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") or the Michigan Handicappers' Act. Whether job-related stress falls within the purview of the ADA has been considered by several courts. The majority of courts has resolved the issue by determining that job-related stress is either not a disability or handicap, or that the employee is not entitled to reasonable accommodation. Regardless of the route taken to resolution, these decisions provide employers with a degree of relief because these claims could ignite a daunting number of employee stress-related complaints and requests for accommodation.
Employees Claiming Job-Related Stress Have Difficulty Proving They Are "Disabled"
Under the ADA, employees must establish that they suffer from a "disability" and that they can perform the essential duties of their job, with or without accommodation. The ADA defines disability as a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities" of the individual at issue. Federal regulations provide that an impairment "substantially limits" a major life activity where:
- the individual is unable to perform a major life activity that the average person in the general population can perform; or
- the individual is significantly restricted as to the condition, manner, or duration under which the individual can perform a particular life activity as compared to the average person in the general population.
Most employees claiming that job-related stress qualifies as a disability allege that their stress substantially limits their major life activity of working. Most courts have rejected this contention, however, on the ground that the inability to perform one particular job does not amount to a substantial limitation on working.
For example, in Paleologos v. Rehab Consultants, Inc., a federal district court rejected the plaintiff 's claim that her stress from interacting and working with management constituted a disability. The court said that this did not substantially limit a major life activity of working because she was only limited in performing a narrow range of jobs. In order to be substantially limited in working, the plaintiff had to be restricted from performing a class of jobs or a broad range of jobs within various classes. The court aptly noted that recognition of the plaintiff's job-related stress as a disability would open the floodgates for other employees subject to the same workplace stresses.
Similarly, in Olson v. Dubuque Community School District, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit decided that a history of depression resulting from difficulty in interacting with her co-workers was not a disability.
Job-Related Stress - Not Entitled To Job Transfer
Courts have also dismissed ADA claims alleging job-related stress on the ground that the employer could not "reasonably accommodate" the stressed employee. In Gaul v. Lucent Technologies, a federal appeals court decision, the plaintiff was diagnosed with depression and anxiety related disorders from his interaction with his supervisors and co-workers. The plaintiff requested that he be transferred to a lower-stress position. After failing to receive a response on his transfer request the employer took a medical leave of absence and instituted an action under the ADA contending that the employer failed to accommodate his job-related stress.
In holding that the trial court properly dismissed the plaintiff's complaint, the appeals court ruled that the employee has the burden of proving that his proposed accommodation -- transfer to a different position -- was possible and that the costs to the employer in providing the accommodation would not be unduly burdensome. In applying this standard, the court held that the employee failed to satisfy his burden for three reasons:
- the proposed accommodation would have imposed an impractical obligation because the employee's stress level could change at any time regardless of what position he occupied;
- the accommodation would have imposed extraordinary administrative burdens because it was too difficult for the employer to control the supervisors and co-workers with whom the plaintiff would come into contact; and
- the proposed accommodation essentially requested that the court establish conditions of the plaintiff's employment, which was not the intention of the ADA.
No Requirement To Provide Stress-Free Workplace
Employers are not required to provide a workplace that is free of stress. Employers should be careful, however, to distinguish between employees with stress resulting solely from the workplace and employees suffering from stress caused by an underlying impairment. The latter may be entitled to reasonable accommodation. To make this determination, employers should obtain information regarding the nature and extent of the underlying impairment. Nonetheless, employers are rarely required to transfer employees to different positions because of the employees' inability to get along with co-workers or supervisors.