It’s Not All In Your Head: Medical Leave and Mental Illness
When your disability is a mental one, struggles may extend beyond the rigors daily life, especially when it comes to your employment. Questions like how and when should you disclose to your employer that you suffer a disability – and whether you need to disclose this in the first place – can be a tough decision , To be sure, employees with certain mental disorders still can be stigmatized simply because their serious illnesses are not always manifest themselves in ways that are apparent to others, which can result in mixed responses in many workplaces. But even if an employer cannot see signs or symptoms of a mental disorder, can an employee rely on the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to take time off from work without risking her job? Are you protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act as Amended (ADAAA)?
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) underscores the importance of recognition that individuals with psychiatric disabilities may be eligible for certain employee benefits and for job-protected leave. To better understand, we should take a closer look at the FMLA and the ADAAA.
Understanding FMLA Leave
As the DOL explains, the FMLA entitles employees (as long as they are otherwise eligible) to take an “unpaid, job-protected leave” for a number of different reasons, including if the employee suffers from “a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job.” But does a mental illness or disorder constitute a “serious health condition” as it is defined by federal law?
Yes. According to the DOL, many different psychiatric impairments may be considered serious health conditions such that at employee could be eligible for disability benefits or FMLA leave. Some of those psychiatric impairments include but are not limited to:
- Anxiety disorder;
- Panic disorder;
- Bipolar disorder;
- Schizophrenia; and
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Americans With Disabilities Act
The federal Americans with Disabilities Act protects individuals in the workplace from discrimination due to their disability, the perception of a disability and/or the need for a reasonable accommodation for their employment due to their disability. The Act prohibits an employer from retaliating against an individual because of their disability or request for accommodation. Since 1997 and continuing, the EEOC emphasizes the importance of recognizing individuals with psychiatric disabilities and/or mental impairment as covered individuals under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The EEOC recognizes hardships individuals with mental impairments may face when deciding whether to disclose their disability to their employer. This is especially difficult when the employee may anticipate the need for an accommodation – such as a flexible work schedule or start time, additional paid time off (PTO), or remote work/telecommuting, in lieu or in addition to leave under the FMLA.
The ADA allows for an employee to seek such accommodations, but in doing so, the employer may also have the right to ask questions about the disability to determine if the accommodation can be met.
Seeking a Medical Diagnosis for Your Serious Health Condition
It is wise to seek care from a healthcare professional and to receive a diagnosis from your doctor to support your eligibility formedical leave due to a mental disorder. Such documentation may eventually be requested by the employer and helps to avoid questions later regarding the disability.
Given that psychiatric impairments may be diagnosed by a healthcare professional, it is important to understand that they are indeed serious health conditions that can impact an employee’s ability to perform her job. At the same time, certain medical conditions, which may be diagnosed clinically, still may not fall under protections of federal law. Such impairments and personality traits that are not typically covered illnesses under federal laws are as follows:
- Substance abuse;
- Disagreeableness; and
- Bad judgment.
If you have questions about how a diagnosed mental health condition may qualify you to take time off under law, you should speak with an experienced employment law lawyer about your rights. Contact Scott • Wagner and Associates for more information.