One of the things we do at NachtLaw is counsel students and employees grappling with mental health disability. Increasingly, as the linked article below shows, workers are not afraid to seek accommodations. Historically, the fear of stigma prevented many employees from seeking help. Workers in their twenties typically lack that fear.
I would note that particularly when it comes to anxiety, there is a major generational difference on the acceptability of seeking accommodation.
“Tough it out” or “suck it it up” is part of the culture of many workplaces. That is, learning how to cope with stress historically is seen as constituting “an essential function of the job”— to use the language that courts use when analyzing claims under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Think of a waitperson in a busy diner at breakfast time or an emergency room nurse. We expect them to tolerate stress. But what about most office jobs? Some routinely have stressful moments, such as when deadlines approach. Some workplace cultures tolerate people who yell, and others do not. There is currently no such thing in US workplace law as “Harassment” that is not linked to sex, race, age, gender or disability. Not yet.
Can an employee who suffers from anxiety state that he or she can “perform the essential function of the job” without being yelled at and demand that a workplace culture change?
Good question. Historically, the answer has been no.
Part of the change has to do with cultural shifts around subjective experience. Younger workers and current students generally give much more credence and care more about a person’s reported subjective experience of harassment. Middle aged and senior workers tend to impose a “reasonableness” standard as to whether feelings are justified and mistrust complainers. But that is changing too. I have seen a noticeable uptick in older workers seeking “stress leave” who point to others who believe a boss yells too much as support for their claim.
But with “stress leave”, there still remains the norm that the job is inherently lawfully stressful. One must tolerate it or leave rather than get others to change.
But some large employers are now investigating bosses who yell too much in a similar way that they investigate sexual harassment or race discrimination. These employers are using their policies and internal Human Resources investigators to alter the culture of their workplace.
Our national cultural conversation about mental health is linking more to our conversation about work life balance. We care a bit less about just the results and a bit more about the process by which results are achieved. But that doesn’t mean that managers who fail to achieve results will keep their jobs. After all, companies that don’t make a profit eventually go out of business and no one has a job there anymore, which is for most people, more stressful than a boss who yells.
I predict that as long as the economy stays strong with low unemployment, we will start to see a trend toward courts moving to enforce nicer workplaces.
Workplace law does not exist in a vacuum. As a country, we are starting to focus more on suicide rates and the underlying causes of the opiate crisis. So it makes sense that the law will give more weight to reducing workplace conditions that contribute to anxiety and depression.
Read the Wall Street Journal article, “Young Workers Seek Mental Health Accommodations, Employers Try to Keep Up”, by Lauren Weber, Feb. 12, 2020.