Q: My employee provided me a note from his doctor that said, “My patient would benefit from a less stressful work environment,” but didn’t specify any limitations the person has. I think this is a request for a reasonable accommodation, can I ask my employee to provide me with more information?
– Apparently Stressful Boss
A: Mais, oui! You can ask for more information. However, you need to temper your desire for more information by asking only legitimate questions about your employee’s condition and its impact on his/her work. Here are the key things to consider: Is this stressed condition a permanent thing? Does it substantially limit the person in any major life activities? If the answer to either is no, then your employee is probably not considered disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and you’re not required to provide an accommodation. In the spirit of being the best boss you can be (and to make sure you’re not violating any state or local laws), try to figure out with your employee what kind of accommodation he is looking for. Will your employee still be able to perform the essential functions of his job with an accommodation that will provide for less stress? Is your employee claiming his stress is a result of the work environment? If so, you may have a Worker’s Comp issue on your hands. The bottom line is that the ADA requires an employer to engage in an “interactive process” to determine whether an accommodation is necessary and what accommodation is best.
Q: My doctor recommended I get a specific ergonomic device and my employer said it was too expensive. The company suggested two alternative brands and another way of accommodating me that they say are cheaper. My doctor is the one who is the expert on my condition, isn’t her recommendation the final word?
– Confused and In Pain
A: You’re partly right on this one. Your doctor is the expert on your condition. She is not necessarily the expert on what kind of accommodation would best help minimize the effects of your condition and still let you get your work done. The ADA and other local laws do not require an employer to provide any specific accommodations. Every accommodation situation is different and needs to be evaluated as such. The best thing is for your doctor to provide your employer with a list of what activities cause you pain or discomfort. Specifics like “typing on a standard keyboard at chest height” will be more helpful than vague terms like “data entry.” With this list, your employer can contact its accommodation coordinator or ergonomist to figure out what would meet your needs and be within your employer’s budget. If either of you have any questions, a great resource is the Job Accommodation Network, a free consulting service which provides accommodation recommendations and offers technical advice about disability related laws: http://www.jan.wnu.edu .
According to a classic study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, stress is more than twice as likely to cause employees to miss work for more than 30 days than all other injuries and illness combined!
(This article was originally published in the column Watercooler Counsel. It has been included here with minor updates.)