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Anxiety in the Workplace

Getting stressed out at work is natural - it happens to everyone. But there's a difference between being stressed out by your job and having an anxiety disorder. Stress can trigger a latent disorder, or heighten the anxiety already being experienced by a sufferer. This is bad news for people with anxiety disorders, as well as for employers dealing with lost productivity, absenteeism, poor performance and increased healthcare costs when employees are ill.

Although higher levels of stress make today's workplace a more difficult environment for people with anxiety and depressive disorders, there is good news! People with mental illnesses have rights in the workplace, rights that can make their jobs less of an everyday struggle.

Your Workplace Rights
Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, which is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC). Title I of the act prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified job applicants and employees who have disabilities. People with psychiatric disorders are covered under the ADA, and although the actual wording of the law is unclear, the intent is clear. Those with mental disorders are not to be discriminated against any more than a person with diabetes, epilepsy, or any other medical condition.

  • Qualifying for a Disability
  • Reasonable Accommodation
  • Disclosing a Disability
  • Stigma
Qualifying for a Disability
An individual with a psychiatric disability is defined as someone who has a mental impairment that interferes with one or more "major life activities." A mental impairment includes major depression, bipolar disorder, an anxiety disorder, schizophrenia or a personality disorder. Stress itself is not a mental impairment, but it may be related to, or a symptom of, an impairment. Major life activities include: sleeping, concentrating, interacting with others, learning, caring for oneself, speaking, performing manual tasks and working. If one of the above mental impairments interferes with a person's ability to work over a period of several months or longer it may be considered a disability. A condition that is chronic may also be considered limiting enough to qualify as a disability.

Reasonable Accommodation
In addition to protection under the law, an individual with an impairment that meets the qualifications can ask for "reasonable accommodation" in the workplace. What constitutes reasonable accommodation is decided on an individual basis, and usually involves changes to workplace policies, procedures, or practices. Examples include:

  • Flexible scheduling or leave
  • Sound minimizing partitions between workstations
  • Extra time to learn new tasks
  • An on-site job coach.
An employer is obliged to grant any requests for such accommodations unless it can be proved that doing so would place "undue hardship" on the employer.

Disclose or Not Disclose?
Whether or not to disclose a disability to an employer is a very personal decision. Reasons for disclosing vary. Some people disclose because they need accommodations, others because they want to educate people about their condition, and still others disclose because they do not want to feel like they are hiding something. Whatever the reason, disclosure can be a big step emotionally and should be thought through carefully. It will be helpful if, before disclosure, an employee understands the demands of the job, determines what he needs in terms of accommodations, and knows his own limitations.

Employers are not allowed to ask a job candidate or employee whether or not he has a disability.

What they can do is make a conditional job offer based on a medical examination, but this must be required of all job applicants, not only those suspected of having a disability. If the applicant is found to have a disability, the employer can then ask about the nature of the disability. The job offer can be withdrawn only if the condition will prevent the applicant from fulfilling the requirements of the job.

There are certainly risks associated with telling an employer about one's disability. An employee may suffer some stigma and discrimination either from supervisors or co-workers although it is not legal. One way to minimize risk is to assess the track record of the company and its management. Know what an employer's history is with other employees who have disabilities in terms of accommodating their needs, respecting their privacy, handling discrimination and measuring attitudes towards employees after disclosure. Disclosure can be made at any time, so the decision to do so can wait until an employee feels comfortable in the workplace or until a reasonable accommodation becomes necessary. It is advisable, however, to alert supervisors to problems before they get out of hand.

According to the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, if you decide to disclose you should determine how specific you want to be about your disability and provide additional information accordingly:

  • Very general: refer to a medical condition or an illness.
  • A little more specific: say that you have a biochemical imbalance, a neurological problem, a brain disorder, or difficulty with stress.
  • Mention mental illness specifically: mental illness, a psychiatric disorder, or a mental disability.
  • Give your exact diagnosis: clinical depression, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc.
Disclosing a psychiatric disorder is such a difficult decision because of the stigma associated with mental illness. Defined as a mark of shame, disgrace or disapproval, stigma inflames misconceptions about people with anxiety disorders and other mental conditions. They can be viewed as weak-willed, having a character flaw, or worse - being "crazy," incompetent, or even violent. The key weapons to combat stigma in the workplace are education and understanding what your rights are under the law.

To learn more about the Americans with Disabilities Act, the rights of people with mental illnesses in the workplace, and stigma, visit the following websites:

Information Sheets:

What can you do to make life at work less stressful if suffering from an anxiety disorder?

  • Keep working! Apart from the obvious financial reason, employment is important for enhancing your self-esteem and adds to your social identity.
  • Educate yourself about your disorder. Learn to recognize the symptoms and how to handle them if you experience any while at work.
  • Recognize your own limitations. Be realistic and don't overestimate what you can handle.
  • Tell a trusted co-worker about your disorder. Knowing that someone at work is aware of your condition, and accepting of it, can be very comforting. It can take much of the anticipatory fear out of having a panic attack at work.
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