Struggling With Your Mental Health at Work? You May Be Covered by the ADA

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Key Takeaways

  • Mental health issues have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • You may qualify for Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations if you are seeking help from a doctor or mental health professional.
  • Your employer can provide accommodations in the workplace to help you balance any mental health issues or conditions you may have with your workload and environment.

Since social distancing and isolation became the recommended safety precautions against COVID-19, many have struggled to handle the stress of living and working through a global pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says during June, that U.S. adults reported considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19. About 40% of adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use.

Despite a surge in mental health conditions among working Americans, many companies have continued business as usual. The good news is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) offers protection and accommodations for workers living with certain mental health issues. If you’ve recently spoken with your primary doctor about new concerns, or about past mental health diagnoses, you may qualify for ADA protection. 

"Physical or social distancing was highly encouraged at the start of the pandemic to reduce the spread of coronavirus while at the same time, the unintended consequences of physical distancing led to social isolation and issues related to it," Ijeoma Opara, PhD, assistant professor of social work at SUNY Stony Brook University's School of Social Welfare, tells Verywell. "Mental health clinicians quickly adapted to the needs of the public at the start of the pandemic, with most clinicians providing fully virtual sessions to their clients. This allowed for more people to take advantage of participating in mental health services while also increasing access during the country’s most vulnerable time."

What Mental Health Conditions Qualify?

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, you can qualify for the ADA if your condition “substantially limits” your ability to concentrate, interact with others, communicate, eat, sleep, care for yourself, regulate your thoughts or emotions, or do any other major life activity.

These conditions include:

  • Major depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

In order to qualify, your condition does not need to be permanent or severe. It’s common for mental health symptoms to vary from day to day. ADA allows for protection on days your symptoms are present as well as dormant.

What This Means For You

Concern about your mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic is normal. If needed, talk to your doctor or mental health professional about your diagnosis and your return to work. Reach out to your employer about reasonable accommodations at your workplace. Follow up with the human resources department and inform them of your doctor’s suggestions.

How Do I Get Accommodations at Work?

The first step is asking your employer. Some workplaces require for all requests to be made in writing. Others may ask for a letter from your doctor or healthcare provider which documents your mental health condition and the accommodations you require. If you aren’t comfortable sharing a specific diagnosis with your workplace, ask your supervisor or manager if a general status will do. For example, your letter might say you live with a depressive disorder. 

Will My Mental Health Status Remain Confidential at Work?

In most cases, you can keep your condition private. However, your employer is allowed to ask you questions about your mental health under the following conditions:

  1. When you ask for accommodations at work
  2. After the company has extended a job offer to you, but before your job begins. But only as long as all candidates are asked the same questions.
  3. When taking a company-wide survey on the status of employees. This is usually done for recruitment purposes. In this case, you are not compelled to respond.
  4. If due to your mental health, there is evidence you may be unable to do your job, or that you pose a safety risk.

The Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) is a federal law that requires patient information to remain safe. Your human resources department is required to keep all medical information about you private. Failure to comply can open employers to receive citations for violating federal and state legislation.

What Reasonable Accommodations Can I Expect?

Accommodations vary for each company. Some examples include quiet office spaces or adjusting work times. Other examples can include providing headphones to create a quiet workspace, the ability to shift working hours around appointments, or working from home.

“While the specifics as to what's considered reasonable under the law will depend on the context, the fact remains, employers, must take disability rights laws into account when making employment decisions,” Sunu Chandy, legal director for the National Women’s Law Center, tells Verywell. “During this global pandemic it is particularly important that employers provide reasonable workplace accommodations for those who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 based on their disabilities, and for those whose mental health disabilities may have intensified given the various strands of stress related to this pandemic.”

Can My Job Fire Me Because of my Mental Health?

An employer cannot fire you just because you have a mental health condition. Your employer also cannot force you to take leave or refuse to give you a job or promotion due to your condition. This doesn’t mean your employer can’t let you go. Before your employer terminates you, they must provide you with unbiased evidence that you can’t do your job or that having you at work would cause a demonstrable safety risk, even with accommodations.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mental health, substance use, and suicidal ideation during the COVID-19 pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020.

  2. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Depression, PTSD, & other mental health conditions in the workplace: Your legal rights.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).

By Erica Gerald Mason
Erica Gerald Mason is an Atlanta-based writer with a focus on mental health and wellness.