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Your Legal Rights: Anxiety at Work

Anxious person about to interview for a job
By FindLaw Staff on March 03, 2021 7:00 AM

Anxiety is difficult enough to deal with on its own. When you add in managing a heavy workload or interviewing for a new job, it can become debilitating.

Working With Anxiety 101

You cannot be fired for having severe or chronic anxiety. It is a protected diagnosis under federal law. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects chronic conditions that limit "bodily function." Because anxiety alters the body's functions of thinking and concentrating, it is covered as a disability in most cases.

However, your company must be a private employer with more than 15 employees to be covered by the ADA. You should also keep in mind that at-will employees can be let go at any time for no reason.

If you feel you have a strong case for wrongful termination due to your anxiety, then you can talk to an employment law attorney for free. In most cases, however, it can be hard to prove you were fired because of your anxiety in the workplace, so prevention is the best approach.

Getting Hired With Anxiety

You are not required by law to explain any medical conditions during a job interview. Employers also cannot ask you to reveal or explain any conditions during the interview.

Remember these tips while interviewing with anxiety:

  • You do not have to explain any accommodations you need before you sign an employment contract.
  • You cannot be denied a job based on a medical condition, but it also can be hard to prove the reason you were not offered a job.
  • You can ask for simple accommodations like "can you repeat the question" or "I just need a moment to consider my reply" during the interview.

Interviewers can ask task-related questions like "can you lift 100 pounds?" or "can you stand for nine hours?" if it is part of the job. Whether you lie or tell the truth, they can legally make assumptions about you being able to do these things.

For example, if a job involves presenting to hundreds of people every day, it is not illegal for the company to assume you are not the right fit for the role based on how you present yourself in the interview.

Handling Work After an Anxiety Diagnosis

It is often best to talk to HR and your team upfront and work together to find reasonable accommodations. This helps the team understand what you need and helps you keep working at the necessary pace for your job.

It also provides a written record and "paper trail" about:

  • Your diagnosis being on the record
  • Discussions about reasonable accommodations
  • Approval from your manager on these accommodations

Suppose a manager approves you taking off early once a week for therapy. In that case, they cannot later accuse you of "slacking" by leaving early during the workday.

Remember that you can control the message about your anxiety. This can help you avoid the extra stress of wondering if your team thinks you are acting strange, making mistakes, or not working at your average pace.

Always keep your workplace rights in mind:

  • You have the right to privacy in the workplace.
  • You do not have to reveal any actual diagnosis to your manager or team. You can simply say, "I have a medical diagnosis that will limit how I work for [amount of time]."
  • Even if you don't explain your diagnosis, you can explain the reasonable accommodations you need, such as time off for appointments or being excused from public speaking.
  • HR staff may need a doctor's note or more information about your diagnosis, but this does not mean you need to reveal anything to people outside of HR.
  • If you trust your teammates, you can explain you have anxiety, but this choice is entirely up to you.

New Roles or Teams When You Have an Existing Anxiety Diagnosis

These rules are similar to the items above: as long as HR knows about your condition, you are covered.

These tips can help a team transition go smoothly:

  • You may want to explain accommodations to your new team. (For example: "When my noise-canceling headphones are on, I absolutely cannot be disturbed," or, "I will be unavailable every Tuesday from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.")
  • You can ask HR to attend a meeting with your new manager or team to discuss your diagnosis or accommodations.
  • You can tell only your manager, some coworkers, or all of your coworkers. You may want to discuss who you tell and how you will explain it with your therapist or psychiatrist first.

Taking Prescription Medications on the Clock

Your prescription and dosage level are approved by your doctor or psychiatrist. But that doesn't mean some medications are not debilitating to your awareness, consciousness, or focus.

Daily or "situation-based" anxiety medications like Xanax can make it hard to work or drive home. If you need to take medication for a panic attack or anxiety disorder, your employer can't stop you from taking prescribed medication. However, an employer can ask you to go home or stop working.

Jobs that could be life-threatening, such as construction or operating heavy machinery, can regulate an employee taking any substance while on company premises. They can't stop you from taking medications, but they can send you home. This is up to their individual policy.

Other companies may have a blanket policy for taking time off if you can't effectively perform your job. For example, if you take a prescribed mind-altering substance (such as pain medication), you may need to take sick time.

Can Work Ask To See My Prescription?

The bottom line is if the substance is prescribed, and you are taking it as directed, your company can't stop you from taking it.

They can ask you to take sick time or unpaid time off. If a substance is not prescribed or is an illegal substance, then you may be fired or disciplined.

HR can legally ask to see your prescription information if it is:

  • A medical inquiry under the ADA
  • An inquiry focused on job-related circumstances
  • A "business necessity" (for example, they found you passed out at your desk, you crashed your company car, or you made a significant mistake on a client account)

To avoid problems, you should keep your prescriptions and diagnosis current. If your prescription expired months ago, but you are still taking the leftover medication as needed, you can be in trouble for using an unprescribed substance.

The same applies to no longer having an anxiety diagnosis but still using your work accommodations. When the disability no longer exists, you need to update HR and your manager and return to your typical workday.

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