Is Anxiety a Disability?

In this article...
  • Individuals living with anxiety can sometimes struggle in the workplace. Knowing how to cope with anxiety and ask for workplace accommodations can help you be successful.

Is Anxiety a Disability? What You Need to Know

Approximately 19% of U.S. adults live with an anxiety disorder. That’s an estimated 48 million people who have intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations.

While many people living with anxiety can function successfully at work, others cannot. For example, they may have difficulty concentrating, become easily fatigued or restless, withdraw from coworkers or miss work frequently. They may turn down promotions out of fear of added responsibilities. They may avoid social gatherings, presentations and team-building activities. Their productivity and work relationships may suffer as a result of their anxiety.

In some cases, people living with anxiety may actually qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) payments. In other cases, they may qualify for accommodations at work. This article explains how people living with anxiety can navigate work-related challenges by leveraging legal protections and benefits.

How Do I Know Whether I Have Anxiety?

You must meet certain criteria outlined in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that your medical provider—usually a psychologist, psychiatrist or primary care physician—will use to evaluate your condition. For example, you may feel anxious from time to time but not actually have an anxiety disorder. Only your provider can determine whether you have one or more types of anxiety disorders (i.e., generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and phobia-related disorders).

Is Anxiety Considered a Disability That Qualifies for SSDI Payments?

If you’re an adult with anxiety, you may qualify for SSDI payments if your anxiety is considered severe and persistent or if you meet certain other criteria based on your specific signs and symptoms. Again, only your provider can make this determination. If you suspect you might have anxiety, contact your provider to set up an appointment for an evaluation.

How Can I Apply for SSDI Benefits If I Think I’m Eligible?

You can apply online, by phone, or in person. As part of the application process, you will be asked to provide information yourself, your anxiety and the effect of your anxiety on your work. Use this checklist to compile important documentation before you apply.

Will I Always Be Eligible for SSDI Payments Once I Start Receiving Them?

Not necessarily. Once you’re approved for SSDI, your case will be periodically reviewed (once every three years) to determine whether you are still disabled.

If I’m Not Eligible for SSDI, What Are Some Strategies I Can Use to Cope with My Anxiety at Work?

There are many strategies that can help you cope with anxiety at work. For example, you may be able to talk about your anxiety with a trusted coworker who can normalize it for you. If you’re feeling anxious, you can also change your scenery by going for a walk outside or even within the building. Another idea is to examine your fears and whether they are irrational. For example, if you fear social gatherings at work because you think coworkers don’t like you, what evidence do you actually have to support that? Might it be an irrational thought?  

What If I Ultimately Need Accommodations at Work Because of My Anxiety?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are obligated to provide reasonable accommodations (e.g., job restructuring or modified work schedules) if your anxiety meets these criteria: it significantly impacts your ability to perform major life activities or functions, there’s a record of your anxiety, others perceive you as being disabled due to your anxiety and you’re able to perform the essential job functions with or without accommodations.

What this means is that some people with anxiety are considered to have a disability under ADA, and some are not. Also keep in mind that the ADA applies to businesses with 15 or more employees. In addition, employers are also exempt if they can show that the accommodation would be an undue hardship, such as being too expensive or creating other challenges within the workplace environment.

How Can I Ask for an Accommodation?

You can request an accommodation in writing or verbally, depending on your employer’s protocols. For example, if you have anxiety about in-person presentations, you can ask to do them virtually. If you have anxiety about being in the office, you can ask to telecommute. If you need to see a therapist to treat your anxiety, you can ask for a break from work to attend that appointment. If you work in a cubicle and feel anxious around other people, you can ask to be moved to a quieter space. If you take medication that makes you groggy in the morning, you can ask to begin your day a little bit later. If you need breaks during the workday for calming or stress relief exercise, you can ask to stay later in the day so you can take multiple breaks throughout the day.

What If My Employer Denies a Valid Accommodation Request?

You have the right to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

About the Author

Lisa Eramo is an independent health care writer whose work appears in the Journal of the American Health Information Management Association, Healthcare Financial Management Association, For The Record Magazine, Medical Economics, Medscape and more.

Lisa studied creative writing at Hamilton College and obtained a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University. She is a member of the American Health Information Management Association, American Academy of Professional Coders, Society of Professional Journalists, Association of Health Care Journalists and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

Lisa currently resides in Cranston, Rhode Island with her wife and two-year-old twin boys.

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