Getting an Accommodation for Depression or Anxiety in the Workplace

Learn about your workplace rights and common reasonable accommodations for anxiety and depression.

By , J.D.
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For those suffering from an anxiety disorder or depression, it can be tough to get through the workday. Anxiety disorders can lead to intrusive thoughts, feelings of panic and fear, and difficulty handling changes and job-related stress. Depression can cause extreme fatigue, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, and trouble with deadlines and attendance. The resulting problems at work and with supervisors can exacerbate these already very challenging conditions.

The good news is that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may offer some help. If you work for a private employer with at least 15 employees, your employer may not discriminate against employees with disabilities. (Mental and psychiatric conditions often qualify as disabilities.) And, if you have a disability, your employer must provide reasonable accommodations that will allow you to do your job.

Depression and Anxiety as Protected Disabilities

You're protected by the ADA if you have a disability: a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of your major life activities. Major depression and anxiety disorders (including agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder) almost certainly qualify as disabilities because of their effect on daily life. If your depression or anxiety makes it hard for you to sleep, work, concentrate, think, regulate your emotions, or care for yourself, for example, then it is a disability under the ADA. (For more information, see the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's guidance on depression, PTSD, and other mental health conditions.)

Your Right to a Reasonable Accommodation

Employees with disabilities have the right to reasonable accommodations: changes to the workplace, job, or employment policies that will allow them to do their work. Your employer must provide a reasonable accommodation unless doing so would create undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense, taking into account your employer's size and resources).

If you need a reasonable accommodation, you must ask for one. The ADA doesn't require your employer to guess that you have a disability or need an accommodation. If your depression or anxiety is making it difficult for you to work, and you believe changes such as a modified schedule, a less noisy office space, or more help tracking your assignments and workload would help, you should request an accommodation.

You don't have to make your request in writing, but it's a good idea. That way, you can make sure you have clearly communicated your needs to your employer, and you'll have a record of your request. Once you've made your request, your employer may ask for more information or documentation of your condition and the way it affects you.

Your employer doesn't have to provide the precise accommodation you request, but it must engage in a "flexible, interactive process" with you to try to come up with an accommodation that will be effective. For example, if your new supervisor has a harsh and critical style that is exacerbating your anxiety disorder, you may ask to report to your former supervisor, whose style was more positive. Instead, your employer might ask your new supervisor to take a more constructive approach with you, and offer to provide a mediator to help the two of you get along better.

Common Work Accommodations for Depression and Anxiety

The accommodations you need will depend on your job and how your condition affects you. Here are some problems that might arise at work for employees who suffer from depression and anxiety disorders, along with some accommodations that might be effective:

  • Attendance problems. Time off work might be a reasonable accommodation if you need:
    • to see a doctor or therapist during the workday
    • to take occasional days off when your condition is exacerbated, or
    • be hospitalized from time to time.
  • Tardiness problems. If you're taking medication that makes you groggy in the morning, you might request a modified schedule, starting later in the day. Or, if you need breaks during the work day for calming or stress relief exercise, you might ask for more frequent breaks, perhaps to be made up by coming in earlier or staying later in the day.
  • Concentration problems. Depression and anxiety can make it difficult to focus and think. If you're having trouble concentrating, you might request a change in your work environment to minimize unnecessary distractions. For example, if you work in a cubicle or near a noisy copy machine, you might request a move to a quieter space. If your supervisor or coworkers frequently pop in to chat, you might ask that these visits be limited (or simply ask to be allowed to close your door to avoid these interruptions). You might ask for lighting that mimics natural light in your work space, or for a white-noise machine or noise-canceling headphones.
  • Issues with memory and organization. Anxiety, and particularly depression, can make it difficult to remember and retain information, and to keep complicated work tasks straight. There are many memory aids you can use, from white boards to tape recorders to extensive notes of meetings and assignments. You could ask your supervisor to provide feedback and details of your work in writing. You could ask for frequent check-ins and help breaking down big projects into more manageable tasks.

    You can find many more accommodation ideas at the website of the Job Accommodation Network.

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