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Phobias in the Workplace

ENews: Volume 9, Issue 1, First Quarter, 2011

From the desk of Melanie Whetzel, M.A., CBIS, Lead Consultant – Cognitive/Neurological Team


A Federal employee with a fear of confinement cannot wear a seatbelt. A delivery driver living near a large city cannot drive through the actual city with overpasses and bridges. A water treatment worker cannot do the job of checking irrigation systems for fear of snakes. A sales manager for a national corporation cannot fly on a small airplane. All of these employees have a fear that might prohibit them from doing their jobs. Are these fears considered phobias? Are phobias disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act? What accommodations will work for individuals with these various fears? These are some of the types of questions JAN consultants answer for employees and employers alike concerning phobias.

We answer the question of whether a phobia is a disability the same as we answer any question about whether a particular medical condition would qualify as a disability under the ADA. Following the definition of disability under the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), each case would be looked at on an individual basis. Because a phobia would likely be a mental impairment, we would look at whether the impairment substantially limits the individual in one or more major life activities. Major life activities include but are not limited to breathing, sleeping, and concentrating. A major life activity also includes the operation of a major bodily system such as the respiratory or circulatory system.

According to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, phobias are irrational, involuntary, and inappropriate fears of (or responses to) ordinary situations or things. People who have phobias can experience panic attacks when confronted with the situation or object about which they feel phobic. A category of symptoms called phobic disorder falls within the broader field of anxiety disorders. Phobias are usually long-term, distressing disorders that keep people from ordinary activities and places. They can lead to other serious problems, such as depression.

No matter what type of phobia you have, it is likely to produce the following reactions: a feeling of uncontrollable anxiety when exposed to the source of your fear, the feeling that you would do anything to avoid what you fear, and the inability to function normally because of your anxiety. Even knowing that your fears are unreasonable or exaggerated does not help, because you may be powerless to control them.

According to the above information, a phobia could very well be considered a disability under the ADA and might very likely need to be accommodated in the workplace. Let us look at the phobias presented earlier and see what accommodation might be provided to enable the employees with these specific limitations to continue working.

  • For the Federal worker who could not use a seatbelt, asking for an exemption from the Executive Order 13043 that requires Federal workers to use a seatbelt when traveling on official business was discussed, as well as reassignment to a position that did not require travel.
  • For the driver who could not travel within the city, he was accommodated with routes that would not lead into the city limits, and other employees were allowed to take the city routes. He might have fewer routes than other employees at times, but he agreed to the accommodation that would enable him to drive without the fear of a panic attack.
  • For the water treatment worker who was afraid of snakes, JAN recommended looking into kevlar gaiters and gloves for protection against snake bites. Reassignment to an open position the employee was qualified for that did not involve outdoor exposure to snakes was also discussed.
  • For the sales manager who could not fly on small planes, he was accommodated with travel by bus or allowed to drive himself when possible for the shorter trips when a smaller plane would be warranted. The employer was also looking at the manager's attendance at meetings by tele/webconferencing when possible instead of going in person.

Contact JAN if you have questions about phobias and how they might affect work situations.

worker putting head on table