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Is Anxiety a Disability under the ADA?

The Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") requires an employer to make reasonable accommodations for an employee that has a disability.   In 2008, Congress enacted the ADA Amendment Act of 2008 ("ADAAA"), which broadened the definition and the scope of the term "disability" under the ADA.  The result of a broader definition has left employers (and attorneys) wondering whether seemingly prevalent mental or psychological impairments, such as anxiety, are considered disabilities under the ADA.

Under the ADA, the term "disability" means a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of an individual.  Moreover, the ADA's definition of a mental impairment includes any emotional or mental illnesses, such as anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders include panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, an anxious personality or general anxiety while working cannot automatically be considered a mental impairment.  To rise to the level of a disability, the employee's anxiety must substantially limit one or more major life activities of the individual. Although there is no exhaustive list, examples of a major life activity include learning, thinking, interacting with others, sleeping, speaking, or working.

A federal court in South Dakota recently ruled that an employee's anxiety about getting fired--which prevented her from maintaining her nutritional needs, caring for her children, and obtaining adequate sleep--was a disability under the ADA.  As the court noted, anxiety that substantially affects an employee's major life activities can be considered a disability under the relaxed standards under the ADAAA. While a possible cause for concern to some employers, it should be noted that an employee remains required to prove that the anxiety substantially limited a major life function in order to be considered a disability.  Additionally, no courts in Texas have yet made a similar determination. 

Nevertheless, in light of this, employers that are requested to make a reasonable accommodation for a person with a disabling anxiety condition or other psychiatric disability should consider possible accommodations.  These reasonable accommodations could include things such as flexible leave or scheduling (such as telecommuting), more frequent break periods, modifying the employee's work environment, requiring supervisors to put instructions or critiques in writing, or reassigning the employee to a vacant yet equally comparable position.