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  4.  → Federal workers with mental health concerns should use caution

That some Americans’ mental health has taken a hit in the past couple of years is no secret. The pandemic dealt many people serious blows, including job and business loss, financial strain, isolation, sickness and even death of loved ones. The civil unrest after George Floyd’s death added to the mix not only more fear and personal insecurity, but also a wider gulf between people based on political leanings and personal beliefs.

As we come out on the other side, more people are finding the courage to come forward and speak openly about their own mental health, including treatments like therapy or medication prescribed for depression, anxiety and other diagnoses. Unfortunately, openness about mental health in some federal government workplaces may have negative repercussions – even though it should not – including for some employees unlawful employment discrimination based on their mental health conditions.

Examples of federal employment discrimination based on an employee’s mental health

Harassment based on disability is one type of discrimination, including the creation of a hostile workplace environment. For example, an employee with a mental health condition may endure subtle, derogatory comments from colleagues or supervisors that demean or ridicule. Perhaps a worker has a legitimate accommodation for their illness that allows them to work a variable schedule, but a later start time subjects them to jokes about laziness or inability to manage responsibilities. When a hostile environment impacts an employee’s ability to perform the essential functions of their job, they may have a claim for illegal harassment based on disability.

Or, a federal agency-employer taking negative employment action because of an employee’s mental illness is another type of unlawful discrimination. Such actions could include withholding coveted assignments because the supervisor projects negative stereotypes like instability or unreliability from the diagnosis, despite the employee being perfectly capable of performing the task – or a wide range of negative actions like failure to promote, demotion, failure to provide training or perks, unfair reviews or references, undesirable transfers, undeserved discipline and even wrongful termination.

Talk to an employment lawyer who represents federal employees

For a federal employee with a mental health diagnosis, there are legal remedies available when their illness is obviously being used against them at work. Discuss these issues with an experienced attorney who can provide advice about potential remedies within the federal-agency employer or through other agencies or courts. Legal counsel can investigate the situation on behalf of the client and may be able to negotiate an acceptable solution.

Many federal positions have official job descriptions. A worker’s mental health concerns may unfairly raise questions about whether they can meet the job requirements, so should be careful about whether and how they disclose certain illnesses. A lawyer can provide guidance about how the client should go about this process to protect their federal career. Any federal employee who is suffering from a mental illness of any sort should consult legal counsel that practices in this area of law to understand how a federal worker’s actions and inactions could affect their employment.



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