What should an employer do when an employee asks for an accommodation due to stress, nervousness, or panic attacks triggered by interactions with co-workers or the public? What if that employee's job is customer service? New authority from the federal courts counsels employers to tread lightly.
This month, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals shed more light on the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as amended. Joining the viewpoint of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other courts around the country, the Court held that (a) interacting with others is a major life activity, and (b) an employer therefore must consider accommodating employees who claim to be substantially limited in their ability to do so. The Court explained, "[f]ew activities are more central to the human condition than interacting with others," and "[a] person need not live as a hermit in order to be 'substantially limited' in interacting with others."
TIP: When a request for a different job assignment is coupled with complaints of work-related stress, make sure you have all the information you need about an employee’s condition and job needs before taking any employment action.
The discharged employee in Jacobs v. N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts allegedly suffered from a social anxiety disorder. Her job initially involved administrative filing, but she was later moved to a customer service position, which required face-to-face interaction with the public. She claimed to experience "extreme stress, nervousness, and panic attacks" in her new position and requested an accommodation (i.e., to work fewer days in customer service and more days performing administrative tasks). Her employer discharged her three weeks after she made this request and cited undocumented performance issues as the basis.
The trial court dismissed this case on the theory that the employee was not disabled and the employer therefore had no duty to accommodate. The Court of Appeals, however, has now overturned that dismissal and the case will go to trial. Regardless of the trial outcome, the case reminds us that on-the-job stress, nervousness, and anxiety in some instances may qualify as a disability under the ADA and trigger an employer's duty to discuss accommodation requests.