Anxiety-Related Disability Claims on the Rise

In April, a Kentucky jury awarded $450,000 to a former employee who claimed that an unwanted office birthday party triggered panic attacks. The employee refused to attend the party and was later terminated. The jury found that the employee had experienced an adverse employment action due to his disability – specifically, his anxiety.

The facts of the Kentucky case are undoubtedly unique, but this case does serve as a warning to employers. More anxiety-related Charges of Discrimination are being filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) than ever before. It is estimated that Charges of Discrimination relying on an anxiety disorder as the basis for a need for an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) constituted 11.6% in 2021, which is an increase from 10.3% in 2020 and 9.5% in 2019. Of course, with the increased awareness of the importance of mental health, the question becomes whether a greater number of employees are suffering from these disorders more than in previous years, perhaps as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and a return to office work, or whether employees are now more willing to seek help and obtain a diagnosis for these conditions. Perhaps, the answer is a little bit of both.

At any rate, employers should take expressed concerns regarding anxiety disorders from their employees seriously. After all, in the Kentucky case, the employee had sought a simple disability accommodation – cancel the party so he would not have a panic attack. Rather than discussing that request with the employee, the employee’s supervisors instead called him into a meeting and chastised him for his reaction – which, of course, triggered yet another panic attack. The manager, surprised and alarmed at the employee’s reaction, assumed that the employee may be a violent person and then terminated the employee a few days later. A simple conversation with the employee and his supervisor would have cleared up any misunderstanding – and, likely, avoided liability.

Employers and managers should make an effort to listen and response to their employees’ needs. Employees should be welcome to disclose any mental health conditions that they might be facing, and employers, in turn, should be prepared to engage in a meaningful conversation with the employee to determine the cause of the employee’s anxiety and whether the employer is able to help. In some cases, an employee may need to be sent home to eliminate an immediate risk to the workplace and to give the employee time to “cool off.” However, it is also crucial to maintain a dialogue with an employee about these incidents – rather than making unwarranted assumptions and hasty poor decisions. Not only will these efforts put employers in the best possible position to avoid claims of discrimination or be well-prepared to respond to such claims, but it also allows employers to build a healthy, safe, and productive workforce.

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