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Overcoming Mental Health & Disability Bias in the Return-to-Office Era

Depressed businesswoman in the office

The issue of returning to the office post-COVID-19 is evolving into a significant disability dispute, particularly for those with mental health conditions. As companies increasingly require employees to return to physical workspaces, there's a noticeable rise in charges of disability discrimination. These charges, filed with federal and state agencies, are predominantly based on mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Rising Trends in Disability Discrimination Charges

Data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reveals a concerning trend: allegations of discrimination against individuals with anxiety, depression, and PTSD increased by at least 16% from 2021 to 2022. Similarly, state civil-rights agencies report that disability charges, covering a range of conditions including mental health disorders, have surpassed previous top complaints like retaliation and race discrimination.

The pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues, and the shift back to office work is a significant stressor. Hannah Olson of Disclo, a firm that assists employers with disability accommodations, notes an all-time high in mental illness, largely fueled by COVID-19 and return-to-office demands. While employers generally approve most accommodation requests, approval rates have dipped since the pandemic's onset, according to Sedgwick, a company managing leave and disability claims. In 2021, 95.6% of requests were approved, dropping to 91.8% in the first half of 2022.

One notable legal case involved the EEOC suing a Georgia employer for refusing a digital marketing manager with mental health disorders the accommodation to work remotely. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 plays a crucial role here. It mandates that employers accommodate disabled employees so they can perform their essential job functions. However, these accommodations often require delicate negotiations and compromises.

Challenges in Mental Health Accommodations

Employers face unique challenges when addressing mental health accommodation requests. They must avoid probing into the specifics of the disability and focus on how it affects job performance. Remote work requests are particularly tricky, as they can be seen as preferential treatment, leading to complaints of inequality among employees.

The pandemic has changed the landscape of work, with many employees and disability advocates calling for continued remote work options. However, many companies, citing increased productivity and collaboration, are eager to boost office attendance. Employees often bypass federal processes, opting for state employment agencies or lawsuits in state courts, which sometimes offer greater worker protections.

An example is Brittinay Lenhart, an Air Force veteran who experienced sexual harassment and was diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety. After working remotely during the pandemic, her request to continue doing so was initially granted but later challenged by a new manager, leading to her resignation and a subsequent discrimination charge.

The Future of Work and Disability Accommodation

Covid-19 has significantly impacted workplace culture, particularly regarding remote work, a long-sought option for many with disabilities. For companies insisting on a return to the office, proving that remote work isn’t a reasonable accommodation becomes challenging, especially after it was mandated during the pandemic.

The intersection of return-to-office policies and disability rights is a complex and evolving issue. Balancing business needs with employee well-being, especially concerning mental health, requires nuanced understanding and compassionate management. As the workplace continues to evolve in the post-pandemic era, the importance of inclusive and flexible work policies becomes increasingly evident.