Mental health awareness has been on the rise in recent years, and society is gradually recognizing the importance of addressing mental health issues. However, many Californian employees still have the question: Can I be fired for mental illness?
In this blog, we will explore the complex issue of mental health discrimination in the workplace, whether or not Californian employees can be fired for their mental health problems, what they can do if their employer violates their rights, mental health discrimination in California workplaces, and the laws that protect employees.
Understanding Mental Illness
A mental illness, also known as a mental health disorder, is a condition that affects a person’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, behavior, or overall mental well-being in a way that significantly impairs their ability to function in daily life. These conditions can range in severity and have various causes, including biological, psychological, and environmental factors.
Here are some common examples of mental illnesses that are prevalent in California, as they are in many other parts of the world:
- Depression: Major depression is characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and the loss of interest in once enjoyable activities. It can lead to significant impairments in daily functioning.
- Anxiety Disorders: Anxiety disorders encompass a range of conditions, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. These conditions involve excessive worry, fear, or anxiety that can interfere with daily life.
- Bipolar Disorder: Bipolar disorder involves extreme mood swings, including episodes of mania (elevated mood) and depression (low mood). Individuals with bipolar disorder may experience significant shifts in energy, behavior, and thinking.
- Schizophrenia: Schizophrenia is a severe mental illness characterized by distorted thinking, hallucinations, delusions, and impaired social functioning. It often requires ongoing treatment and support.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD can develop after a person experiences a traumatic event. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, which can disrupt daily life.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): OCD involves persistent, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions) aimed at reducing anxiety. These obsessions and compulsions can be time-consuming and distressing.
- Substance Use Disorders: While often related to substance abuse, addiction is considered a mental health disorder. It involves the compulsive use of substances despite negative consequences.
- Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD): BPD is characterized by unstable relationships, emotions, and self-image. Individuals with BPD may struggle with impulsivity and have intense and unstable interpersonal relationships.
These mental disabilities are highly prevalent, impacting the major life activities of nearly every family residing in California. They cut across all demographics and can manifest at any stage of life. The California Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) findings state that between 5% to 7% of adults grapple with a severe mental illness. A comparable percentage of children, roughly between 5% and 9%, also face such challenges yearly. Consequently, more than two million individuals in California, spanning children, adults, and seniors, confront the potential disabilities associated with mental illnesses every year.
Unfortunately, as mental illnesses become prevalent, it is now a significant issue that affects millions of individuals worldwide, including in the workplace. While progress has been made in recognizing and addressing mental health concerns, discrimination against those with mental illnesses remains a pressing problem in many work environments.
What is Mental Health Discrimination?
Mental health discrimination refers to the unjust and prejudicial treatment of individuals based on their mental health condition or perceived mental health condition. But what does having a mental illness mean?
Common Forms of Mental Health Discrimination
Different forms of mental discrimination can be present in any work environment. These include:
- Stigmatization: Employees with mental health issues may face negative stereotypes and biases from their coworkers or employers, leading to isolation and an adverse workplace.
- Unequal Treatment: Some employers may treat employees with mental health conditions differently in terms of job assignments, promotions, or access to opportunities.
- Harassment: Verbal or emotional harassment related to an employee’s mental health condition is a form of discrimination that can create a hostile work environment.
Can a California Employee Get Fired for Mental Illness?
The question still stands: Can I be fired for mental illness? The answer is NO. It is against the law for an employer to terminate an employee solely due to mental health reasons. It is also illegal for a company to discriminate against someone with a physical disability or a mental health condition. Employers are prohibited from terminating employment, denying promotions, or mandating a leave of absence based solely on these factors.
However, employers are not obligated to hire or retain individuals who are unable to perform their job responsibilities or pose a direct threat to themselves or others in the workplace. Employers must refrain from relying on stereotypes and the stigma surrounding mental health issues when making decisions regarding hiring, retention, or promotions.
Employers must have concrete and substantial evidence demonstrating that an individual is incapable of performing their job effectively. Furthermore, any employee with a mental disability should be offered reasonable accommodations rather than being subjected to termination.
The Role of ADA and FEHA
Employers are generally prohibited from discriminating against employees with mental health conditions under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). Under these laws, mental illness is considered a psychiatric disability, and employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to affected employees.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
The American with Disabilities Act is a federal law that provides comprehensive protection against discrimination for individuals with disabilities in various aspects of life, including employment. It defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. This broad definition encompasses a wide range of conditions, including mental health disorders.
Under the ADA, employers with 15 or more employees are prohibited from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities. Workplace discrimination includes adverse employment actions like hiring, firing, promotions, and job assignments.
One of the key provisions of the ADA is the requirement for employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with disabilities. These accommodations are adjustments or modifications that enable individuals to perform their job duties effectively. For example, a flexible work schedule, modified workstations, or additional breaks for someone with a mental health condition may be considered reasonable accommodations.
This Act also mandates that employers keep medical information, including information related to mental health conditions, confidential and separate from personnel files.
Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)
The Fair Employment and Housing Act is a California state law that parallels and often expands upon the protections provided by the ADA. It has a broader definition of disability than the ADA and covers more conditions and provides protection to a wider range of individuals.
FEHA explicitly prohibits harassment based on disability, including mental health conditions. This includes actions such as creating a hostile work environment. It also requires employers to engage in an interactive process with employees to determine reasonable accommodations. This process involves a dialogue between the employer and the employee to identify effective accommodations.
Unlike the ADA, FEHA applies to employers with five or more employees, making it applicable to a greater number of businesses in California.
The ADA and FEHA serve as legal protections against employee mental health discrimination in the workplace. Under these laws:
- Employers are obligated to make reasonable accommodations for employees with mental conditions, such as modified work schedules or additional breaks.
- Employers cannot fire an employee solely because they have a mental condition, as long as the employee can perform their job with or without reasonable accommodations.
Employee Rights to Privacy
People with disabilities, particularly employees in California, have the right to keep their mental health status private. Employers cannot inquire about an employee’s mental health unless it is directly related to their job responsibilities or necessary for accommodating their needs. Disclosing a mental health condition is at the discretion of the employee.
Legal Recourse for Employees
If an employee believes they have experienced mental health discrimination in the workplace, or have been wrongfully terminated due to their mental health condition, they have legal recourse. They can file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and seek legal assistance from an employment lawyer to protect their rights.
Protecting Your Rights: Consult with An Employment Lawyer
Mental health discrimination is a serious issue that affects many employees in California and beyond. Thankfully, state and federal laws such as the ADA and FEHA are in place to protect individuals with mental health conditions from unfair treatment in the workplace.
While the question of “can I be fired for mental illness” is nuanced, these laws provide essential protections and avenues for recourse for those who face discrimination. Employees should be aware of their rights and seek legal assistance if they believe their rights have been violated, as promoting mental health inclusivity in the workplace is a crucial step toward a more equitable society.
If you have experienced mental health discrimination, an employment attorney can help you get the justice you deserve. Labor Law Advocates is dedicated to protecting your rights to make sure that you receive the benefits you are entitled. Consult with the most qualified employment attorney in California for legal advice today. Speak with one of the experts at Labor Law Advocates for a free consultation.
We are available 24/7. Call us anytime at (424)-688-3632.