The days of remote work and zoom meetings are still upon us. However, more and more of the country continues to reopen. As it does, our employees return to work beset by ailments we may have never known they had. In fact, "invisible disabilities" is the technical term used in the ADA to describe the nature of certain afflictions.
As experts will attest, COVID-19 can have a different effect on every person with which it interacts. Because of this, we're seeing individuals with diseases like Asthma or Diabetes fearful of returning to work. These invisible disabilities aren't limited to physical ailments either, but mental and mood disorders as well. The big question now is, how do we handle this?
Let's start with the facts. Simply put, employers are not required by the ADA to approve accommodation requests, but are advised to hear out an employee's request, based on EEOC guidance. Most employers would still prefer to provide a safe and hospitable work environment for their employees regardless of it being mandatory.
At that point, the employer should weigh their cost/benefits. Will implementing proactive safety measures be in the employers' best interest vs. taking on individual requests as they come? The answer is often a simple yes. Examples may be...
- Reorganizing your workspace to encourage social distancing
- Installing a plexiglass barrier between work stations to reduce airborne contaminants
- Installing handwashing stations around the office
- Requiring individuals to wipe down their workstation as they come & go
- Requiring individuals to wash any utensils or cups they may use in the breakroom as they use them
- Installing UV lighting fixtures around the office or in the HVAC ductwork that can kill germs before they spread
These types of solutions can be inexpensive or even free and can mitigate the fear of returning to the workplace for individuals with invisible disabilities. Consider as well that many of these disabilities can be very difficult to speak about to an employer. With the stigmas surrounding mental and mood disorders, it can be especially awkward for an employee to request an accommodation. At this point, stress and anxiety boil over and can easily negatively affect their productivity.
The next possible step is to allow specific individuals to continue working remotely. Polls have shown that the majority of American adults want to continue working from home. However, most of them are unable to handle the stress, distractions, and overall "cons over pros" they seem to think aren't affecting their performance. That said, studies also show that individuals with anxiety or mood disorders often do better working remotely. They do not have to worry about social anxiety, any phobias that may arise in the office, or commuting. Remote work is a solution that an employer could use to provide reasonable accommodation for the right employee and can be perceived as a win-win for everyone involved.
Overall, we need to keep our businesses running, and we (usually) need employees to do that. Keeping them happy and healthy benefits everyone, and will more often than not lead to better employee productivity, satisfaction, and retention.
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