Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Anxiety

Is Anxiety Legally a Workplace Disability?

A jury awarded $450,000 after a birthday party induced a panic attack at work.

Key points

  • The employee alleged that his anxiety disorder was a workplace disability and that his employer had discriminated and retaliated against him.
  • Determining whether an anxiety disorder amounts to a workplace disability is often a fact-dependent and confusing legal analysis.
  • Some courts have found that anxiety disorders amount to a workplace disability, whereas others have not.

Last week, a jury awarded an employee $450,000 after his company threw him a birthday party despite his warnings that it would cause anxiety.

According to documents filed in the lawsuit, the plaintiff suffered from an anxiety disorder. As the time of his birthday approached, he asked his office manager not to organize a lunchtime birthday party for him, as the company often did for its employees. The plaintiff explained that the party could rekindle childhood traumas and trigger a panic attack. Despite his warnings, a party was planned anyway and the plaintiff suffered a panic attack. He fled to his car in the parking lot for the remainder of the lunch period.

As alleged in the lawsuit, the plaintiff was then "confronted and criticized" at a meeting the following day. His supervisors accused him of "stealing his co-workers' joy" and "being a little girl." The meeting elicited another panic attack, and the plaintiff was sent home. Two days later, he was fired.

The employee filed a lawsuit against his employer, alleging two counts of disability discrimination. Specifically, he alleged (1) that his anxiety was a workplace disability and the company had refused his reasonable request for accommodation to not to have a birthday party, and (2) the company had retaliated against him for requesting those reasonable accommodations.

The employee's victory in court made national headlines, in part because of the large jury award and also because of the relatively unusual basis for the lawsuit: anxiety. In a video posted on my legal education TikTok channel, which has garnered half a million views, the comment section is firmly polarized, with some congratulating the employee and others deriding the entire lawsuit as frivolous.

Is Anxiety a Workplace Disability According to the Law?

Many perceive the law as rigid and imposing—white men in black suits interpreting black-and-white rules and regulations, never allowing a single thought to float beyond the rigid confines of established legal parameters. But the reality is much different. In fact, the law is often "gray," subjective, and highly fact-dependent. Disability claims in the workplace are a perfect example.

Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), workers with a qualified disability are entitled to reasonable accommodations from their employer. What counts as a disability? Well, after the ADA was amended in 2008, a new—and very broad—definition of disability was adopted. Rather than listing explicit diagnoses or conditions that constitute a disability, the term is simply defined as any "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities." Likewise, the definition of a "reasonable accommodation" is quite vague, encompassing any change to the workplace that allows a person with a disability to perform the essential functions of that job. Employers are only exempt from providing reasonable accommodations if they present an "undue hardship," such as extreme financial cost.

A common example of an ADA disability and a reasonable accommodation can be found in a chronic back injury. Imagine a warehouse employee suffers from a herniated disk and is afflicted by persistent back pain. Reasonable accommodations could include moving the employee to an available administrative role or investing in lift-assist machinery.

Research on Anxiety

Yet, when disabilities arise from psychiatric dysfunction, things get more complicated, and certainly more controversial. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the United States, affecting 18 percent of American adults (Kessler et al., 2005). Research has repeatedly shown that anxiety disorders are associated with reduced job productivity (Plaisier et al., 2010; Plaisier et al., 2012; Hendriks et al., 2015), resulting in billions of dollars in indirect workplace costs (American Psychiatric Association, 2004). Despite the prevalence of anxiety disorders and their clear impact on job performance, employers are often hesitant to view anxiety as a bona fide disability, perhaps due to stigmas against mental illness (Reavley and Jorm, 2011) or because they are simply unaware of the scope of disability laws.

Of course, not all instances of anxiety would be classified as a disability under the ADA. To be sure, we all experience transitory anxiety, perhaps prior to public speaking or while driving during a heavy thunderstorm. However, to meet the criteria for a disability, anxiety must be severe, "substantially limit[ing] one or more major life activities." To determine if an employee's anxiety rises to this level, courts will look to the specific facts of the case, often placing particular emphasis on medical records.

Previous Cases

For example, in a recent federal case, EEOC v. West Meade Place LLP, the plaintiff alleged that her employer failed to provide reasonable accommodations for her anxiety disorder. However, upon reviewing all of the evidence, the Court found that she was not legally disabled under the ADA. Focusing heavily on the plaintiff's medical records, the Court found that they failed to corroborate that any of her major life activities were substantially impaired by her anxiety. Interestingly, the Court did not find it conclusive that the plaintiff was prescribed anti-anxiety medication, emphasizing instead the plaintiff's own testimony in which she admitted that her anxiety had only caused her to miss a single day of work.

By contrast, other courts have found that anxiety disorders are workplace disabilities. In Jacobs v. N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts, an employee was placed in a customer service role, which she alleged caused her significant anxiety. The Court noted that she had been formally diagnosed with a social anxiety disorder as a teen and had received treatment from several different mental health professionals throughout her life. Internal records from her job also revealed that she made several complaints to her supervisors asking to be moved to a non–customer service role, and that she had poor job performance when dealing face-to-face with customers. Explicitly referring to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), which describes a social anxiety disorder as a condition that “interferes significantly with the person’s normal routine, occupational...functioning, or social activities or relationships," the Court concluded that her anxiety substantially impaired her ability to interact with others⁠—a major life activity⁠—and, thus, met the criteria for a disability under the ADA.

Overall, as with many questions in the legal world, there is no clear answer for whether or not anxiety is a workplace disability according to the law. Each case is different, and courts will consider all of the facts available before making a determination. Thus, we are left with the lawyer's favorite answer: It depends.

References

American Psychiatric Association. Early Treatment of Anxiety Disorders Will Save Money in the Workplace. Mental Health Works, Third and Fourth Quarters, 2004

Hendriks SM, Spijker J, Licht CM, et al. Long-term work disability and absenteeism in anxiety and depressive disorders. J Affect Disord. 2015;178:121-30.

Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Demler O, Walters EE. Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of twelve-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Archives of General Psychiatry, 2005a;62:617-27.

Plaisier I, Beekman A, de Graaf R, Smit JH, van Dyck R, Penninx BW. Work functioning in persons with depressive and anxiety disorders: the role of specific psychopathological characteristics. J Affect Disord. 2010;125:198-206.

Plaisier I, de Graaf R, de Bruijn J, et al. Depressive and anxiety disorders on-the-job: the importance of job characteristics for good work functioning in persons with depressive and anxiety disorders. Psychiatry Res. 2012;200:382-388.

Reavley NJ, Jorm AF. Stigmatizing attitudes towards people with mental disorders: findings from an Australian National Survey of Mental Health Literacy and Stigma. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2011 Dec;45(12):1086-93.

advertisement