Phobias are irrational, involuntary, and inappropriate fears of (or responses to) ordinary situations or things. The fear is persistent and out of proportion to the actual danger the object or situation poses. 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 social isolation and depression.
Phobias and the Americans with Disabilities Act
The ADA does not contain a list of medical conditions that constitute disabilities. Instead, the ADA has a general definition of disability that each person must meet. A person has a disability if he/she has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having an impairment. For more information about how to determine whether a person has a disability under the ADA, see How to Determine Whether a Person Has a Disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA).
Accommodating Employees with Phobias
People with phobias may develop some of the limitations discussed below, but seldom develop all of them. Also, the degree of limitation will vary among individuals. Be aware that not all people with phobias will need accommodations to perform their jobs and many others may only need a few accommodations. The following is only a sample of the possibilities available. Numerous other accommodation solutions may exist.
Questions to Consider:
- What limitations is the employee experiencing?
- How do these limitations affect the employee and the employee’s job performance?
- What specific job tasks are problematic as a result of these limitations?
- What accommodations are available to reduce or eliminate these problems? Are all possible resources being used to determine possible accommodations?
- Has the employee been consulted regarding possible accommodations?
- Once accommodations are in place, would it be useful to meet with the employee to evaluate the effectiveness of the accommodations and to determine whether additional accommodations are needed?
- Do supervisory personnel and employees need training?
Situations and Solutions:
An employee with agoraphobia works from home full-time as a benefit of employment.
When new management comes on board, the whole telework program is scrapped and everyone is required to return to the office. The employee, who never had to disclose and ask for an accommodation, now asks for a policy modification that would allow him to continue to work from home. The new management considers his request and finds no hardship in allowing him to remain at home to complete his job tasks.
A paramedic was finding it increasingly difficult to go out on runs because of a phobia that involved roaches.
He asked that enough personnel be dispatched to each scene that would enable him to remain in the vehicle. The employer could not guarantee that it would always be possible, so they agreed to look into reassignment. He was successfully reassigned to a 911 dispatch position that was vacant, where he wouldn’t be required to go on the problematic runs.
An adjuster for an insurance company developed a fear of heights and using ladders after a recent fall from a roof.
The employer looked at the options of providing safety gear to the employee as well as reassigning him to a position without the height / use of ladders requirement. The adjuster truly wanted to stay in his job, and since the use of ladders for heights isn’t something he does every day, they decided to obtain safety gear so that he wouldn’t fall again.
An employer was notified that the only supervisor he had in a particular department had a phobia towards a specific group of people.
The supervisor asked to be excused from supervising a new employee from this people group. Since she was the only supervisor in that area, the employer could not remove the duty or give it to another. By attending the meetings himself with the supervisor and this particular employee, the employer was able to reduce the anxiety the supervisor was feeling and eventually enable her to meet with the person (and others) without the extra support.
An administrative assistant who worked in a small office was reassigned to another position when her position was eliminated due to a reduction in the work flow.
Her new environment was an open area that didn’t allow her to sit with her back to the wall, escalating her fear of being in open spaces. She was accommodated by a move to the outskirts of the large area. Her workspace was reoriented so she was able to sit with her back to a partition that was near a wall.
An employee with anxiety and a driving phobia takes public transportation to work.
After a company restructure, the employee was moved to work in a new location that would necessitate a lengthy commute involving two buses and a train. She disclosed her disability and asked for accommodations. She was accommodated by remaining at her current location, with a change in supervisor to the one who would oversee the employees in that location. Although her current supervisor was going to the new location, her job would remain the same.
JAN Publications & Articles Regarding Phobias
Accommodation and Compliance Series
Consultants' Corner Articles
- A Support Person as an Accommodation
- Accommodations Related to Commuting To and From Work
- Confidentiality of Medical Information under the ADA
- Dealing with Stress in the Workplace
- Emotional Support Animals in the Workplace: A Practical Approach
- Hidden Disabilities: Confidentiality and Travel
- Phobias in the Workplace
- Service Animals and Allergies in the Workplace
- Service Animals in the Workplace