From the desk of Melanie Whetzel, M.A., CBIS, Lead Consultant – Cognitive/Neurological Team
Social anxiety or social phobia is one of the most common mental health issues in America today. The cognitive/neurological team at JAN receives a number of calls concerning anxiety disorders, many specifically relating to the difficulties people have with being around and interacting with others in the workplace.
If an employee discloses having a social phobia and requests reasonable accommodations, the first step for the employer can be to determine whether the employee has an ADA qualifying disability - a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. If clarification is needed, the employer can request medical documentation confirming the employee has a condition that meets the definition of disability under ADA, and information on limitations to better understand the accommodation needs.
If an individual has been diagnosed with social phobia, it is likely he is at least limited in his ability to communicate with others. It’s also possible that other major life activities may be affected as well. Remember, once an employer establishes that an employee is substantially limited in any major life activity, then the employer has established that the employee has a disability and is entitled to an accommodation for any limitation associated with the disability. The accommodation does not have to be only for the limitation that established disability, it can be for any limitation associated with the disability. Social anxiety can cause pervasive fear and anxiety in almost all areas of an individual’s life, so for someone with the disorder, limitations in memory, concentration, adjusting to change, working effectively with supervisors, interacting with coworkers, sleep disturbances, and others may exist.
Now, how could an employer accommodate an employee with social phobia? As always, this must be determined on a case-by-case basis. If an employee is seeking treatment for the condition, the employer may need to consider providing leave and/or a schedule modification so the employee can attend medical or counseling appointments. Other accommodations would generally be aimed at reducing and/or removing triggers, such as situations that could exacerbate the employee’s symptoms. This could include moving an employee to a different location within an office where she feels more comfortable, modifying methods of communication from face-to-face to e-mail or phone when possible, providing a schedule modification that allows the employee to work when her symptoms tend to be less severe, and providing additional breaks for the employee to call a support person and use stress-relieving techniques. The following are some examples of employment situations involving employees with social anxiety disorder and ways employers may handle such situations:
Jason is a new employee who works as a stock clerk in a large department store. He experiences severe anxiety when approached by customers for help with finding products in the store. Jason discloses his social phobia to the employer and requests reasonable accommodations. After meeting with Jason, the employer agrees to temporarily restructure his position so that he only works in the back during the day and in the front only after hours when there are no customers. The employer also schedules Jason’s work hours around therapy appointments. After one month, Jason has become familiar with where all of the products are in the store, and the employer gradually moves him to the front of the store over the course of the next month. With treatment and the reasonable accommodations provided, Jason becomes comfortable working in the front of the store, no longer needing accommodations.
Jan is an architect in a large, busy, open office space. She requested a private workspace to help her handle the stress brought on by the open, populous, and often noisy environment. During the interactive process the employer agreed to allocate a private space, but also provided Jan with telework as an option as well as flexible scheduling for times when she gets particularly stressed while under firm deadlines.
Rudy works as an engineer for a large city government. He is very good at his job, but experiences severe anxiety when meeting with his supervisor randomly to discuss his performance and progress on meeting deadlines. Rudy discloses this to his employer and requests to be given some notice prior to meeting with the supervisor, as well as the ability to have a support person present for meetings. The employer agrees to notify him one week prior to such meetings and allows Rudy to have his wife present with him during the meetings as a reasonable accommodation.
Larissa works in a call center as a customer service representative for a telecommunications company. She has done well since she started working with the company three years ago, but has recently developed severe anxiety when callers get upset with her on the phone. The effects of the anxiety have become apparent in Larissa’s performance over time, resulting in a poor performance evaluation. In response to the evaluation, she discloses the anxiety she has been experiencing and the employer sets up a meeting to discuss accommodations. Larissa requests the ability to take a ten-minute break every hour to do stress relieving exercises. The employer determines this would require lowering a production standard, which is not required under the ADA. After getting clarification from her doctor, no other effective alternative accommodation is identified. The employer finds a vacancy in a position Larissa is qualified for as a data entry clerk. The position pays less, but reassignment to the position is the only effective accommodation available. Larissa accepts the reassignment.
As the above examples illustrate, many accommodations for social anxiety disorder are simple and inexpensive. The solutions worked well in these particular examples, but there may be a myriad of other effective solutions as well. Accommodations should be considered and determined on a case-by-case basis. If you have questions about a particular situation, please feel free to contact JAN for assistance. For more accommodation ideas for individuals with social phobia, please see JAN’s publications on accommodating individuals with anxiety disorders and mental health impairments.