In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to remove discrimination against individuals with disabilities and to set enforceable standards. The ADA requires businesses to make certain accommodations for employees with physical and also psychological disabilities.
Awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has increased especially with the return of combat veterans to the workforce, but this mental health condition isn't limited to the military community. Instead, it can result from any fearful or traumatic experience such as the death of a loved one, an assault or a car accident. With increasing awareness of PTSD and its presence in the workplace, it's important for your corporate clients to understand their legal obligations including the need to provide accommodations.
While determining accommodations may easier for observable physical conditions, it may not be as clear for psychological conditions like PTSD. Read on to learn more about the ADA, PTSD, and ways you can help protect your clients.
What Does the ADA Require?
Under the ADA, businesses with 15 or more employees are required to provide equal opportunities to employees or prospective employees with disabilities. This means that employers cannot discriminate based on disabilities when it comes to:
- Social activities
- Other privileges of employment
It also means that employers must provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship. However, an employer is only required to provide accommodations for known disabilities and may be restricted from asking about an individual's medical conditions. An employer usually learns of a disability when the employee discloses it in requesting an accommodation. In that case an employer can request documentation of the disability.
There are a few instances under federal law when an employer can initiate an inquiry about the disabilities of an employee or prospective employee. For example, employers can ask about an individual's ability to perform specific job-related functions (e.g. carrying heavy equipment) which could involve a discussion of disabilities.
But how does the ADA apply to mental health conditions like PTSD? After all, these conditions may have less obvious effects but still impact an employee's ability to perform work-related duties.
Is PTSD Covered Under the ADA?
Under the ADA, disability is generally defined as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities." The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has clarified this as its ADA enforcement guide defines mental impairment as "any mental or psychological disorder" and makes specific reference to PTSD. Coverage of PTSD under the ADA was also confirmed by anEEOC opinion letter from 2008.
What Are Reasonable Accommodations for PTSD?
Many PTSD-related symptoms involve interpersonal and social interactions which can impact a workplace. Typical symptoms of PTSD include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Frightening thoughts
- Avoidance of people, places, or thoughts
- Emotional numbness
- Being easily startled
- Feeling tense
- Angry outbursts
While an unfortunate social stigma still exists with PTSD, there have been significant advances in treatment allowing for better symptom management. This also makes workplace accommodations more likely to mitigate the effects of PTSD. Examples of such accommodations include:
- Flexible scheduling to allow time for counseling and appointments
- Allowing calls to medical providers during work hours
- More frequent breaks and backup coverage as needed
- Telecommuting options
- Partitions or closed doors for increased privacy
- Reducing clutter and distractions in the workplace
- Written as well as verbal instructions
- Allowing a service animal at work
- Assigning a mentor
The Job Accommodation Network also provides a helpful guide with more information and suggestions regarding PTSD-related accommodations.
It's important to advise your corporate clients about what the ADA requires and prohibits especially when it comes to PTSD. Although there are restrictions on inquiries into an employee's mental health, having an open channel of communication with employees and available accommodations may help your clients to ensure ADA compliance and a more productive workplace.
There are a number of other resources also available to assist your clients when it comes to ADA compliance, including the EEOC's ADA enforcement guide for psychiatric conditions and the Department of Labor's Toolkit for Employers hiring veterans with PTSD. The Department of Labor also provides additional resources for employers through its Office of Disability Employment Policy.