Shira M. Blank, Member of the Firm in the Employment, Labor & Workforce Management practice, in the firm’s New York office, was quoted in Law360 Employment Authority, in “How to Help with Panic Attacks as Workplace Anxiety Surges,” by Anne Cullen. (Read the full version – subscription required.)

Following is an excerpt:

A recent U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission settlement over a company's alleged dismissal of a worker for having a panic attack reflects the growing visibility of anxiety disorders in the workplace, and underscores employers' need to acknowledge an ongoing surge in mental health-related bias cases, experts said. …

These recent employment discrimination cases over panic attacks, which are defined as feelings of sudden and intense anxiety, echo an upward trend of EEOC charges of disability discrimination based on anxiety disorders. …

Provide Training for Managers

Ahead of any incident, experts said supervisors and managers need training on how to recognize the symptoms of a panic attack — which can include shaking, appearing disorientated or likely to faint, breathing heavily, or sweating — and guidance on not making any assumptions about a worker who experiences one. …

EEOC guidance on the law says that an employer doesn't have to employ people who pose a threat to workplace safety, but the agency has made clear that an employer cannot rely on myths or stereotypes about a person's mental health condition when deciding whether someone can perform a job or poses a safety risk.

"Something we see all the time is managers making assumptions about a specific mental health condition," said Shira Blank, a management-side Epstein Becker Green member who specializes on the ADA. "Assuming that someone who has a panic attack is violent, or not able to handle work, you can't do that."

Offer Space, Then an Accommodation

When an employee is showing signs of a panic attack, experts said managers and supervisors should recognize the cues and allow the worker to take a break in their car, a bathroom, somewhere outside or another space they feel comfortable. …

The ADA mandates that employers offer disabled employees a reasonable accommodation to put them on the same footing as their nondisabled peers. In the event an employee is prone to panic attacks, the workplace adaptation may be tethered to what specifically triggers that person's attacks, though experts said some common fixes are a hybrid work schedule, a more secluded work space, or breaks.

In the lab worker's case, the employee said company supervisors ignored his request to skip his birthday celebration, and then made no attempt to accommodate his panic attacks after they became aware of his anxiety disorder.

Epstein Becker's Blank said these were clear missteps. There's no single phrase that workers need to say to be entitled to an accommodation, Blank said, and if a company knows an employee has a disability and the worker is seeking help to manage it, it needs to step up.

"There's no magic words," Blank said. "When you hear that somebody is prone to panic attacks, it's incumbent on the employer to say, 'Well, what can we do to accommodate you, to the extent that it's necessary?'"

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