With the arrival of shorter days and cooler temperatures, the winter months bring another issue to employers: seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Workers affected by this health issue are protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), so employers should take a moment to learn more about this affliction and the possible return-to-work accommodations that may be made.
Take the case last fall of a school district whose failure to see natural light as a reasonable accommodation option for an employee's SAD disability landed them in court in violation of the ADA. In October 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals 7th Circuit ruled in Renae Ekstrand v School District of Somerset that a teacher could sue this employer for not accommodating her seasonal affective disorder and then wrongly terminating her.
During the 2005-2006 school year, Ekstrand requested to teach a different grade but then found that her new classroom had no exterior windows. She told the school district about her disorder, and the school made some improvements to the classroom but did not move her to another classroom although others were available. Due to her seasonal affective disorder, she experienced anxiety, fatigue, tearfulness and other symptoms. As it worsened, she was placed on medication and her doctors advised her to take a leave of absence.
A federal judge in Madison, Wisc., ruled in favor of the school district, stating that it "engaged in an interactive process" with Ekstrand and attempted to reduce her stress. The appeals court in Chicago, however, cited evidence from Ekstrand's doctors that demonstrated that she was disabled from SAD. Her psychologist also advised that her return to work depended on Ekstrand being provided natural light. The appeals court ruled that the school district was "obligated to provide Ekstrand's specifically requested, medically necessary accommodation unless it 'would impose an undue hardship' on the school district" and found that her employer failed to accommodate her under the ADA.
The appeals court also noted that natural light is not widely known as therapy for SAD but, because this may be the first time an appeals court has ruled on natural light as an accommodation, employers should be aware of light therapy as one of the many changing aspects of ADA and return-to-work accommodations.
According to the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association, light therapy has been shown to be effective in up to 85 percent of diagnosed cases. Light therapy is exposure to high-intensity, bright lights, typically called sun boxes. Because many boxes are portable, an employee can place the sun box on their desk or at a table at work. Light visors (head-mounted light sources) and desk lamps (resembling typical office lamps) are additional at-work light-therapy options.
Other workplace accommodation options include permitting an employee to take extended breaks outside and modifying their work schedule. Relocating an employee's workplace to an area of increased exposure to daylight, or permitting them to work part of the day in a conference room with sunlight exposure, may also help the employee's condition.
Once diagnosed with SAD and work-impaired, to be entitled for workplace accommodations under ADA, the employee must prove that the disability impairs their life and that the accommodation does not cause undue hardship to the employer. Accommodation is determined on a case-by-case basis. If approved, the employee is then entitled to protection from discrimination under ADA law.
Keep in mind, too, that an employee with SAD might also be deemed to have a serious health condition under the Family and Medical Leave Act, triggering possible eligibility for up to 12 weeks of leave for treatment and doctor appointments.
While seasonal affective disorder can affect people in the spring or summer months, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 90 percent of cases begin to occur during the autumn, beginning in October or November, and persist until spring. Three out of four SAD sufferers are women, and the main age of onset for SAD is between the ages of 18 and 30. Although SAD occurs in northern and southern hemispheres, it is extremely rare in those living within 30 degrees latitude of the equator.
Attributed to an imbalance of melatonin and serotonin chemical levels in the brain, SAD shares the same symptoms as major depression: anxiety, loss of energy, hopelessness, social withdrawal, changes in appetite, sleep problems, mood changes and loss of interest in normal activities.
As it pertains to an employee's ability to perform their job functions, employers should take note of these symptoms and understand the possible ramifications if they ignore the employee's request for help. (For a fact sheet on SAD, visit: http://www.nmha.org/go/sad.)
For those undiagnosed but showing symptoms, obviously an employer cannot diagnose an employee's mental health but they can note changes in work performance and listen to employee concerns. An Employee Assistance Program can suggest how to approach an employee suspected of experiencing work problems related to SAD depression.
Although ADA lawsuits based on SAD such as the Ekstrand case are rare, the disorder can be considered a qualifying disability that must be reasonably accommodated--and taken seriously--by all employers.
MARK NOONAN is a managing principal and the senior knowledge manager for workers' compensation for the Casualty Practice within Integro Insurance Brokers.
Read more at the WorkersComp Forum homepage.
November 4, 2010
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