You have a watchdog in the U.S. government if you’re working and have clinical depression. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, commonly referred to as the EEOC, is a federal agency established to enforce fair employment practices. The agency enforces a variety of different laws. One of its most common roles is to enforce fair treatment of workers with depression, whose mistreatment sometimes goes unnoticed because it is emotional and often stigmatized or interpreted as a lack of motivation.
Depression as a Disability
The EEOC is responsible for enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, or the ADA. It’s a law that protects workers with physical or mental challenges, who have records supporting a history of the disorder, or who have a diagnosed disability. Anyone whose depression meets any of these criteria is entitled to protection by the EEOC under the ADA, and to reasonable accommodations in the workplace. In fact, psychiatric impairments, including depression, account for the second most common claim filed under the ADA.
Laws, such as the ADA, use broad terms and it’s not always easy to tell when the law applies. Depression, which is regarded as a psychiatric disorder, fits the criteria of the ADA, but is often determined on a case-by-case basis. People looking for protection under the law have to show how their depression affects them. To qualify for ADA protection, an employee affected by depression must demonstrate that the disorder has a major effect on her ability to function, rather than being just an inconvenience or discomfort.
Many depressed workers face discrimination from employers who are simply unaware of the law or the severity of depression as a disabling disorder. Bosses may perceive major depressive disorder as a weakness of character, laziness or lack of enthusiasm on the job. The ADA even specifies that societal perceptions, stereotypes and stigmas regarding different conditions can be as damaging as the conditions themselves. The EEOC seeks to combat this type of misinformation and the ADA was formulated in part to deal with this very issue. Many employees might even be unaware that they’re being discriminated against.
The EEOC plays a sensitive role, because even though it represents workers, it must take the needs of employers into consideration, too. Employers are legally required to make reasonable accommodations that don’t place too much of a burden on the company, such as causing extreme financial expense or major inconveniences to other employees. Depression can normally be accommodated fairly simply once a request has been made and both the employer and employee understand the law. However, there is a lot of room for interpretation, which is why it is most effectively settled on a case-by-case basis, through education and compromise.
Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."