The American population, and thus the American workforce, is becoming increasingly subject to anxiety and depression disorders. Employers must find ways to retain and motivate employees with such diagnoses in order to maintain a competitive advantage and to avoid legal liability.

Nobody knows precisely how many U.S. employees suffer from anxiety and depression, but they are among the most common mental health disorders in the United States,[1] and available statistics show that it is likely that significantly more workers will be diagnosed in the coming years. A survey conducted by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America revealed that 72% of people self-report dealing with daily stress and anxiety that interfere with their working lives at least moderately. Meanwhile, only 9% of the same population has been officially diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.[2] The Wall Street Journal recently reported that 54% of workers under age 23 reported feeling “anxious or nervous due to stress,” while 40% of millennials reported the same.[3]

Anxiety disorders can affect workplace performance, workplace relationships, and quality of work.[4] They cause workers to “withdraw, turn negative and overreact to stress.”[5] They may cause them to miss work, decline promotions, fail to lead or manage others, or otherwise hinder their careers. There are many potential causes and, at least, correlations between societal norms and increasing anxiety diagnoses. Those include the fact that workers are often expected to be “on” 24 hours a day/7 days a week; technology discourages face-to-face interactions; competitive pressure on young professionals to succeed; too much parental oversight in younger generations; and the lack of social skills and norms.[6]

What’s An Employer Supposed To Do?

The answer to this question generally starts with what an employer is legally obligated to do to accommodate an employee with a known anxiety or other mental health disorder. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”), as amended,[7] and comparable state laws applicable in every state, employers have a legal obligation to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. Anxiety and similar mental health disorders are often qualified disabilities under federal and state disability laws.

For employees with mental health disabilities, courts have sanctioned a variety of accommodations, including modified work schedules, reassignment, granting indefinite leave, and telecommuting, among others. However, this does not mean that employers must accommodate bad behavior or perpetual underperformance. Employers also have no duty to provide an employee with requested accommodations which place an undue hardship on the employer, financial or otherwise.

Beyond legal obligations, employers may want to take additional steps to create a work environment that permits anxious employees to thrive. Employers often underutilize or underemphasize benefits that are already available to their workforce, such as employee assistance programs, which provide confidential counseling to covered employees, as well as free online educational or counseling programs available under many insurance plans.

Some employers, in addition to providing reasonable accommodations to employees with anxiety disorders, provide in-house benefits to increase productivity and promote workforce wellness. Such benefits include making available on-site social workers to provide confidential counseling, providing in-house physical wellness programs such as yoga, training employees on mindfulness and meditation, and simply permitting or promoting conversations surrounding mental health issues at work.

Creating an atmosphere of trust, respect, and inclusion is not easy, but it may be essential as younger generations enter the workforce. Anxiety is not likely to disappear in the near future. If you have an employee who has or whom you suspect has a mental health disorder, you should contact your attorney to inquire as to your legal obligations with respect to that individual. Failure to do so may result in illegal actions and resulting unwanted lawsuits down the road. Dickinson Wright PLLC is ready to assist employers with their policies proactively to prevent issues before they arise.

About the Author:

Christy K. McDonald is a labor and employment attorney in the Grand Rapids office and can be reached at 616.336.1039 or cmcdonald@dickinsonwright.com, and her biography is available here.

[1] “Anxiety Disorders: Why They Matter and What Employers Can Do,” American Psychiatric Association Foundation, Center for Workplace Mental Health http://workplacementalhealth.org/News-Events/News-Listing/Anxiety-Disorders-Why-They-Matter (accessed July 15, 2019).

[2] “Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Highlights: Workplace Stress & Anxiety Disorders Survey,” https://adaa.org/workplace-stress-anxiety-disorders-survey (accessed July 15, 2019).

[3] “The Most Anxious Generation Goes to Work,” The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-most-anxious-generation-goes-to-work-11557418951 (May 9, 2019).

[4] Supra, note 1.

[5] Supra, note 2.

[6] “Today’s Young Worker is Stressed Out and Anxious,” SHRM https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/employee-relations/pages/young-workers-suffer-from-mental-health-issues.aspx (Sept. 13, 2018).

[7] Disabled individuals or those regarded as having a disability may also be protected under other federal, state, or local laws, including Title VII and state discrimination laws.