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Tennis star stood up for her mental health: Takeaways for employment

International headlines recently blared news of Japanese tennis pro Naomi Osaka’s choice not to participate in a post-match news conference, citing depression and anxiety, followed by her withdrawal from the French Open. Only 23, her courage and protection of her own mental health in the public forum reflects others in her generation who are more open about their own mental health needs at work than are older workers, according to The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

Of course, mental or emotional impairments can affect one’s ability to perform a job and to bring their whole self to work. The WSJ cites an American Psychiatric Association Foundation executive as saying that “people with mental-health conditions can often be your high performers” so finding a way for employment to be successful for those workers can be mutually beneficial.

That high performance and mental illness can manifest in the same person is certainly consistent with Osaka’s story.

Reasonable accommodations

Federal and Kentucky anti-discrimination in employment laws – namely the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Kentucky Civil Rights Act (KCRA) – forbid covered employers (usually those with at least 15 employees) from discriminating against a job applicant or employee based on their mental (or physical) disability, defined as an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

Harassment in the workplace based on disability is also illegal, as is employer retaliation against an applicant or employee who complains about disability discrimination or harassment.

Of unique importance, a covered employer must provide reasonable accommodation to an otherwise qualified employee with a disability to allow them to perform the job unless it would cause the employer undue hardship. Examples of accommodations might be a variable work schedule, permission to work from home, adaptive technology, flexible breaks or allowance of a service or support animal in the workplace.

In the American sports world, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the ADA applies to major competitions when it ordered the PGA to allow golfer Casey Martin to use a golf cart as a reasonable accommodation of physical impairment that limited his ability to walk.

Kentucky employers have complex responsibilities toward disabled employees

Each person’s mental disability and its impact on a given job is unique, so employers and employees will need to be creative in shaping reasonable accommodation of a variety of symptoms. If younger workers are more likely to reveal their mental-health needs at work, the question of reasonable accommodation may need to be more frequently assessed.

An experienced employment lawyer can advise an employer of their responsibilities under the ADA and the KCRA. Likewise, an attorney can assess an employee’s reports of disability discrimination or harassment or the employer’s failure to reasonably accommodate their disability. Potential legal remedies could include filing a complaint with a state or federal agency or bringing a lawsuit.