Navigating PTSD in the Workplace: Legal Rights and Protections

April 8, 2024

If you have depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or another mental health condition, you are protected against discrimination and harassment at work because of your condition, you have workplace privacy rights, and you may have legal rights to obtain reasonable accommodations that can help you perform and keep your job.

The following post briefly explain these workplace rights, which are protected by the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the California Family Rights Act (CFRA), the California Civil Rights Department (CCRD) and various medical leave laws.

Disability Discrimination

It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against you simply because you have a mental health condition. This includes employers firing you, rejecting you for a job or promotion, or forcing you to take leave.

However, an employer does not have to hire or keep people in jobs are unable to perform, or employ people who pose a "direct threat" to safety (a significant risk of substantial harm to self or others).

Before an employer claims it can reject you for a job based on your condition, it must have objective evidence that you cannot perform your job duties, or that you would create a significant safety risk, even with a reasonable accommodation.

Privacy

In most situations, you can keep your condition private. An employer is only allowed to ask medical questions (including questions about mental health) in four situations:

  • When you ask for a reasonable accommodation.
  • After it has made you a job offer, but before employment begins, as long as everyone entering the same job category is asked the same questions.
  • When it is engaging in affirmative action for people with disabilities (such as an employer tracking the disability status of its applicant pool in order to assess its recruitment and hiring efforts, or a public sector employer considering whether special hiring rules may apply), in which case you may choose whether to respond.
  • On the job, when there is objective evidence that you may be unable to do your job or that you may pose a safety risk to yourself, other employees, or clients because of your condition.

You also may need to discuss your condition to establish eligibility for benefits under other laws, such as the CFRA. If you do talk about your condition, the employer cannot discriminate against you, and it must keep the information confidential, even from co-workers. If you wish to discuss your condition with coworkers, you may choose to do so.

Reasonable Accommodations

You may have a legal right to a reasonable accommodation that would help you perform essential functions of your job. A reasonable accommodation is an adjustment made in a work environment to accommodate or make fair the same organization for an individual based on a proven need.

Just a few examples of possible accommodations include altered break and work schedules (e.g., scheduling work around therapy appointments), quiet office space or devices that create a quiet work environment, changes in supervisory methods (e.g., written instructions from a supervisor who usually does not provide them), specific shift assignments, and permission to work from home.

Learn about PTSD and Employment Law and understand your rights and reasonable accommodations in the workplace.

You can get a reasonable accommodation for any mental health condition that would, if left untreated, "substantially limit" your ability to concentrate, interact with others, communicate, eat, sleep, care for yourself, regulate your thoughts or emotions, or do any other "major life activity." You don't need to actually stop treatment to get the accommodation.

Qualifying Conditions

Your condition does not need to be permanent or severe to be "substantially limiting." It may qualify by, for example, making activities more difficult, uncomfortable, or time-consuming to perform compared to the way that most people perform them.

Mental health conditions like major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from any traumatic event, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) should easily qualify, and many other mental health conditions will qualify as well.

The DSM 5 classifies PTSD as an “anxiety disorder.” Symptoms include re-experiencing the traumatic event, avoiding activities or situations associated with the trauma, detachment, and hypersensitivity such as irritability and outbursts, and anxious feelings.

Requesting Such Accommodations

Tell a supervisor, HR manager, or other appropriate person that you need a change at work because of a medical condition. You may ask for an accommodation at any time. Because an employer does not have to excuse poor job performance, even if it was caused by a medical condition or the side effects of medications, it is generally better to get a reasonable accommodation before any problems occur or become worse.

Your employer may ask you to put your request in writing, and to generally describe your condition and how it affects your work. The employer also may ask you to submit medical documentation from your health care provider, and that you need an accommodation because of it.

Modifying the Work Environment

Once informed of its employee’s PTSD, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation. All accommodations are based on the circumstances, there is no one-size-fits-all accommodation. To determine the proper accommodation, the employer must engage in the “interactive process” with the employee. This means talking to the employee and trying to provide them assistance. Accommodations can range from providing longer or more frequent work breaks, additional time to learn new responsibilities, flexible start times, and employer counseling.

CFRA Unpaid Leave

The CFRA provides eligible employees of covered employers with job-protected leave for qualifying family and medical reasons and requires continuation of their group health benefits under the same conditions as if they had not taken leave. CFRA leave may be unpaid or used at the same time as employer-provided paid leave. Employees must be restored to the same or a virtually identical position when they return to work after CFRA leave.

Covered Active Duty

An eligible employee may use up to 12 workweeks of CFRA leave for certain reasons, when their spouse, child, or parent is on covered active duty or under an impending call to covered active duty.

Qualifying reasons include, but are not limited to:

  • Making childcare arrangements for the military member’s child,
  • Attending certain military ceremonies and briefings, or
  • Making financial or legal arrangements to address a military member’s absence.

Caregiver Leave

An eligible employee who is the spouse, child, parent, or next of kin of a covered servicemember may use up to 26 workweeks of leave during a single 12-month period to care for a covered servicemember with a serious injury or illness.

Wrongfully Terminated

FEHA prohibits punishing job applicants or employees for asserting their rights to be free from employment discrimination including harassment. The law protects employees suffering from depression, PTSD, and other mental health disorders from workplace discrimination and harassment due to their condition.

If you have a mental health condition, you should know your rights in the workplace. If you are an employer, you should understand these rights and your role in protecting them. If you have faced adverse actions from an employer due to your mental health, you may bring legal action against them in a federal court.

Finding Justice with Freeburg & Granieri, APC

At Freeburg & Granieri, APC, we empower individuals facing workplace challenges. With a deep understanding of employment law and a compassionate approach, our team is dedicated to protecting your rights and ensuring fair treatment in the workplace.

Ready to take action against discrimination or harassment? Contact Freeburg & Granieri, APC today to schedule a consultation and explore your legal options. Don't let injustice go unchecked – let us stand by your side and fight for the justice you deserve.

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