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Phobias in the Workplace

Consultants' Corner: Volume 12, Issue 03

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. A catering assistant in a large city has a fear of elevators that keeps her grounded. A nurse with a fear of medications cannot hand them out to her patients. 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 is considered on an individual basis. Because a phobia is likely to 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 and brain functioning.

According to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 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.

 Approximately 6.3 million American adults ages 18 to 54, or about 4.4 percent of people in this age group in a given year have some type of specific phobia. No matter what type of phobia an individual has, it is likely to produce the following reactions: a feeling of uncontrollable anxiety when exposed to the source of the fear, the feeling that s/he would do anything to avoid the cause of the fear, and the inability to function normally because of the anxiety. Even knowing that the fears are unreasonable or exaggerated does not help, because the individual 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 to perform the job another way (e.g., remotely instead of on-site) 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.
  • The sales manager who could not fly on small planes 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.
  • The catering assistant and the employer agreed to part ways after it was determined that the employee would only be able to work in food prep and not in the actual delivery, set-up and cleanup of the affairs that were catered. The catering company was a small one in a large city that primarily worked bookings in large, high rise office buildings.
  • The nurse requested reassignment to a position in a call center-like setting that would give her the opportunity to interact with patients and use her expertise, but not require her to distribute medications.

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

worker putting head on table