What are Accommodations and How Can I Request Them?

If your mental health is getting in the way of your job, it might be time to consider workplace support.

Written by Rachel Unger

What are Accommodations and How Can I Request Them?

01 There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach for accommodating mental health conditions at work. Each individual has different abilities, limitations and needs.

02 Most employers in the U.S. are legally obligated to provide reasonable accommodations so that workers with disabilities can apply for a position, perform their essential job functions, or enjoy the full advantages of employment.

03 When companies create an inclusive workplace for people with mental health conditions, everyone benefits.

When people think about accommodations, they might picture a handicapped parking spot or a wheelchair-accessible restroom. When it comes to mental health conditions, the concept of accommodations can be harder to grasp. So what are accommodations, and who needs them?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires U.S. employers with 15 or more employees —  including state and local governments, employment agencies and labor organizations — to provide reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities. Some people living with mental health disorders can fall into that category. 

Approximately one in four adults in the U.S. lives with a diagnosable mental health disorder in a given year. For some, certain aspects of their condition can make it hard to be productive at work. Accommodations can help level the playing field. 

Approximately one in four adults in the U.S. lives with a diagnosable mental health disorder in a given year.

Defining a “Disability” Under the ADA 

The ADA defines employees with disabilities as individuals who have, have a record of, or are regarded as having “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” These “major life activities” vary from person to person. There is no single exhaustive list. Examples include caring for oneself, sleeping, speaking, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking and communicating. 

Depending on how it impacts someone’s ability to live and work, a mental health disorder can be defined as a disability within the meaning of the ADA. Examples include major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders (e.g., panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder), schizophrenia and personality disorders. People living with mental health conditions like these may experience impairments — including issues with concentration, memory and time management — that significantly limit their capacity to perform at work. Limitations vary from person to person and call for individualized solutions. 

Employment Accommodations

Everyone needs the right tools to perform a job. Reasonable accommodations may help.

What Are Reasonable Accommodations?

Accommodations are considered “reasonable” if they do not cause undue hardship on the part of the employer — for example, by being too expensive or too difficult to implement. Fortunately, accommodations usually aren’t expensive, and a high percentage (58%) cost nothing at all. 

Workplace accommodations may include adjustments to the job, work environment or management methods. Some workplace accommodations may modify policies, for example, through job restructuring, modified work schedules, or teleworking

Others may entail changes to the environment, like room dividers or noise-reducing products for someone with concentration issues. If weekly appointments with a therapist/doctor are part of someone’s treatment plan for bipolar disorder, they may be given a flexible schedule in order to attend appointments during working hours. Someone living with PTSD may be allowed to bring a psychiatric service dog into work to help calm them down during an anxiety attack. There are countless examples of potential accommodations that can help someone living with a mental health disorder be successful at work. 

Effective accommodations don’t just benefit employees. A study by Accenture reported that on average, the 45 companies that scored highest on the Disability Equality Index (DEI) had higher revenue, higher economic profit margins and double the net income than 95 other disability-inclusive companies participating in the DEI. 

Should You Tell Your Employer About Your Mental Health Diagnosis?

Lauren talks about whether or not you should disclose your diagnosis to your employer, and provides some tips for doing so.

How to Request Accommodations

When possible, ask for accommodation as soon as you think your mental health condition may interfere with your work. Explain that you need a change at work for a reason related to a medical condition. Employers are entitled to request documentation about the disability and your limitations, but ADA confidentiality requirements state that employers must keep this information private.

Although it isn’t required by law, it’s a good idea to submit your request in writing. You can talk to your supervisor or human resources department about your need for accommodation first, then follow up the conversation with a written request. That way, if there’s a disagreement down the line, you’ll have a paper trail that shows what you asked for and when you asked. You don’t need to mention the ADA or use the phrase “reasonable accommodation” when making your request. You can obtain written confirmation from your mental health provider stating that you have a disability and need accommodation.

Once your employer learns that you need an accommodation, you’ll start working together to find the solution that meets your needs without creating an undue hardship for the employer. When more than one type of accommodation would suffice, your employer is allowed to choose which one to provide. You can also ask for more than one accommodation if you need to; your employer has to consider each request on a case-by-case basis. This process can take time, so don’t be discouraged if things don’t happen right away. Be persistent in asking for what you need.

Effective accommodations are key to recruiting and retaining talented employees, and they help to ensure that those living with mental health disorders are treated with fairness and respect in the workplace. To learn more, check out the Job Accommodation Network’s employee guide for requesting accommodations or visit askjan.org

About the author

Rachel Unger is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. She's passionate about raising mental health awareness and promoting fairness in the workplace.

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