From the desk of Sarah Small, M.S., CRC, Consultant – Cognitive/Neurological Team
One of the questions that the cognitive/neurological team at JAN receives is whether there is an employer obligation under the ADA to alter communication methods as a reasonable accommodation when the limitation involved is stress. It can be easier to understand the need and identify possible accommodation solutions when a deaf employee needs to have access to an interpreter or a blind employee needs electronic documents as a way to use a screen reader.
What about an employee who is asking to have their performance review over the phone as opposed to face-to-face or an employee asking for a written agenda in advance for the weekly meeting due to increased stress? Stress is a difficult topic because it is subjective. There can be the argument that everyone experiences stress, so why is there a need to consider this type of request?
Employees should be able to manage their own stressors. How is it a workplace issue?
Performance reviews have always taken place in person; that is just how it is.
We do not give an advance agenda for other employees and are worried about it looking like special treatment.
It can be hard not to generalize or make assumptions. It is important to remember that stress affects everyone in different ways. While something may not bother one employee, it may cause stress for another. It is not up to the employer, a colleague, or anyone else to determine what should or should not be a stressor for any particular person. There is truly no way to make that determination.
So how does an employer navigate these stress related requests?
From a practical standpoint, any time an employee makes a request and connects it to stress, the employer would want to acknowledge it. They might start by having a conversation to clarify the situation with the employee.
Stress on its own may not be enough to rise to the level of an ADA disability. However, stress associated with a disability or medical condition could fall within ADA coverage. Gathering additional information may help to determine if it is an ADA situation. If so, the employer might proceed with their interactive process.
Some employers might choose to explore options with any employee who comes to them regarding stress. There might be simple options whether the employee is having difficulty with stress due to a mental health impairment or related to the recent death of a family member. Everyone experiences stress to some degree and providing supports to help in those moments may help to retain valuable employees.
If an employee asks to have a review over the phone and it would help to reduce stress in order to have a productive conversation about their performance, why not do so? If sending a quick email in advance allows an employee to prepare and fully participate in a meeting, would other employees even have to know? What if sending an advance agenda would help all employees be aware and improve the productivity of meetings?
Recognizing stress-related concerns in the workplace and showing a willingness to communicate about them may help to promote employee wellness and facilitate a healthy and productive work environment.