Even the least demanding jobs require that you show up to work regularly and complete your duties on time. But some medical conditions can interfere with your ability to work on a "sustained and continuous basis." If you have physical or mental impairments that cause you to miss too much work or not finish job tasks, you might qualify for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA).
Many conditions (and treatments) can cause difficulties with concentration and focus. Some of the most common reasons that disability applicants point to when explaining to the SSA why they're struggling with mental functioning include:
Make sure that you let your doctors know about any mental fog or memory issues that develop. Social Security needs to see that your symptoms are supported by medical evidence, and your doctors should mention in their progress notes that you're struggling with attention and focus.
Very few healthy employees work with 100% efficiency all the time. Normal behaviors like daydreaming or chatting with your coworkers are all time spent "off-task." Employers expect and (ideally) should tolerate a certain amount of off-task or unproductive behavior.
But if you have a severe impairment that interferes with your productivity beyond a reasonable level—typically between 10-20% of the day—employers won't hire you for full-time work. In Social Security terms, such limitations would be "inconsistent with competitive employment," and you'd be eligible for disability benefits.
Social Security looks at factors such as your ability to focus and keep up when determining your "mental residual functional capacity" (RFC). Your RFC is a set of restrictions on the type of job duties you can perform.
The agency will compare your RFC with the jobs you've held in the past. If you don't have the mental or physical stamina to return to your past work, then Social Security will determine whether any other jobs exist that you can perform.
The SSA reviews your medical records for evidence of functional limitations that affect how well you maintain concentration, persistence, and pace. The agency uses these terms to describe your ability to focus well enough to complete your work on time.
Absenteeism—missing too many days of work—can also contribute to reduced productivity. If you're able to complete job duties in a timely manner most days, but would need to call in sick every other week, Social Security will likely find that you'd "exceed employer tolerances" for expected absences.
Many RFCs include limitations to jobs that are performed at a specific skill level. Unskilled jobs—such as cleaner, fast-food line worker, or service station cashier—require the ability to perform simple, repetitive tasks that can be learned in less than a month. You'll need to show that your RFC keeps you from doing even these basic jobs.
To determine whether you can do unskilled work, the SSA will look for limitations you have in work-related areas of mental functioning, including:
Depending on how severe your symptoms are, the SSA might find that your limitations are mild, moderate, marked, or extreme. People with marked or extreme limitations in several areas of mental functioning are likely to be unable to perform any unskilled jobs (and in some cases might meet a listed impairment), but having even moderate mental limitations can help you get benefits if you have additional physical restrictions.
Most disability claims based on reduced productivity aren't approved until after a hearing with an administrative law judge. During the hearing, you or your representative will ask questions from the vocational expert (VE) about employer tolerances for time off-task or unexcused absences. While the exact numbers vary, most VEs will testify that employers will tolerate one day off per month or 9% of time spent off-task.
You (or your attorney) should be ready to challenge the VE by naming additional limitations that bump up the percentage of your unproductive behavior or the number of your absences past employer tolerances. You can even ask the VE how they arrived at their numbers for employer tolerances and how accurate they are. If the VE's numbers are outdated, you might be able to convince the judge that you can't work.
Determining that you'd be off-task a certain percentage of the time can be challenging. Unlike physical limitations—which you can show by having a doctor test how much weight you can lift or how long you can walk—mental limitations are more subjective. The SSA often has to make an educated guess based on your doctor's notes and your self-reported activities of daily living.
You can help prevent Social Security from guessing incorrectly with the following tips.
When writing, think about any tasks that you used to finish on time, but that now take you longer. Mention why the activity takes you more time—are you having trouble cooking because you have fibro fog that makes following a recipe difficult? Or is your depression causing memory problems like forgetting to turn off a stove? Social Security will be on the lookout for physical manifestations of your mental symptoms, so be sure to document any changes in activities such as household chores.
The SSA values opinions from doctors who've treated you regularly for at least one year, particularly those who specialize in the area of your disorder. Consider asking your physician, psychologist, or psychiatrist for a medical source statement that helps Social Security understand your mental limitations. A pain management specialist can explain how your medication causes side effects such as drowsiness, for example, while a psychiatrist can discuss how many days of work you'd miss during a manic episode of bipolar disorder.
Few people have better insight into your reduced workplace productivity than past employers. While it can feel embarrassing or counterproductive to ask your former boss for a letter about your performance, it can often be very persuasive for the SSA to have a third-party account of how your condition affected your job performance. You can find an example of a supportive employer letter in our article on sample witness letters for your Social Security disability hearing.
Proving that your disability reduces your workplace efficiency enough to rule out all work can be very difficult. If you're headed to a hearing and you'd like to bring up your lack of productivity with the judge, you should hire an experienced disability attorney or advocate to represent you.
Updated February 28, 2023