We are in the midst of below-freezing temperatures here in Cleveland, Ohio. Other parts of the world have been experiencing a blanket of snow for weeks already. It’s beautiful actually to see the snow sprinkle down and gather on tree limbs…beautiful for about two days, if you don’t have to leave the house and can sit in your sweat pants and drink hot chocolate. But there are no snow days in the working world. So for us, the snow means facing bitter cold days filled with shoveling driveways, scraping ice off windshields, getting stuck in bumper to bumper traffic —we all get annoyed. Yet the gloomy grey skies, day after day, with no hope of sunshine in the near future cause some people to go well beyond annoyed, into a true winter depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
That lack of natural vitamin D from the sun during winter months makes a profound difference in the mood of persons who suffer from SAD. Inflicted individuals typically experience a recurrent winter depression with symptoms that may include excessive sleep, daytime lethargy, difficulty concentrating, hopelessness, lack of interest in normal activities, decreased socialization, and even suicidal thoughts. The “season” of depression can last from October well into March or April—that’s about half the year. Off-season, their mental health is normal.
An employee with SAD should be recognized as an employee with a disability and he/she is protected by the amended Americans with Disabilities Act. If the employer is aware of the disability, it is obligated to make reasonable accommodations.
In July, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury verdict where a school district (employer) was found to be liable under the amended Americans with Disabilities Act for failing to provide a 1st grade teacher with a classroom that provided natural sunlight when the district was on notice that she suffered from SAD. Ekstrand v. Somerset School District, 683 F.3d 826 (7th Cir. 2012). For a period of several years, the teacher, Ms. Ekstrand, made multiple requests for a classroom with windows. She also provided the district with written notice of her disability and a request for accommodations from her psychiatrist who stated that it was “crucial” to Ms. Ekstrand’s recovery that she work in an environment with natural sunlight. The Court of Appeals found that once the district was put on notice, it was required to accommodate her disability unless it could establish that the accommodation would create an “undue hardship” upon the district. The Court found that the costs associated with the room change were not significant enough to constitute an undue hardship.
So if your employee comes to you complaining of the winter blues because he/she ate too many cookies, spent too much money on gifts, and doesn’t feel like going back to work yet, that’s sad, but it’s not “SAD”. He/she may warrant some friendly words of encouragement or a copy of your P-90X dvd, but is not entitled to protections under the ADA. SAD is a much more intense, lasting, true depression, and it’s one of those disabilities that is not usually obvious to an employer. That means that employees have an obligation to make their employers aware that they are in need of medically necessary accommodations, typically by way of written communication from their treating physician.
Even once an employer is aware of the need for accommodations, the employer is not required to provide the requested accommodation if it would create an undue hardship. Relocating the school teacher to another room in the building that has windows is not too much to ask, according to the 7th Circuit. But relocating an entire business from its windowless, basement location to provide a single employee with daylight… I think that would be above and beyond the call of duty where the ADA is concerned.
Yet, there are alternatives to natural sunlight. When you are assessing potential accommodations, be sure to consider electrical devices such as light boxes, desk lamps, visors and dawn simulators whose high voltage fluorescent lights are said to provide the necessary yet artificial “sunlight” that sufferers of SAD require. However, an artificial light therapy source should be approved by the employee’s physician since, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), light therapy “has been associated with an increased risk of experiencing a manic episode”. It is important for the physician to dictate the intensity of the light, the frequency of the exposure, and the time of day that the exposure should take place.