Employment Accommodations: Sleep Disorders

Fact-Checked

Individuals who struggle to get enough sleep may find it hard to come to work consistently or perform as well as they would like. A lack of sleep can also make it harder to stay alert on the job, remember important information, and respond quickly to workplace changes.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a law that makes it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities. The ADA definition of a disability is "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities." The ADA does not maintain a list of conditions that are considered disabilities. By this definition, however, an individual who cannot perform certain functions because of a sleep disorder may qualify as disabled.

It is important for workers with sleep disorders to understand their rights under Title I of the ADA. Title I is a section of the ADA that outlines disability laws for the workplace and prohibits employers from discriminating against disabled employees. It states that employers must make accommodations for disabled workers who are otherwise qualified to perform their jobs. Title I ensures that a person with a sleep disorder cannot be fired if their condition is making it difficult to function at work.

Common Sleep Disorders Impacting Employees

Sleep disorders are conditions that disrupt a person's sleep patterns and prevent them from getting adequate sleep. About 70 million Americans have one of over 80 known sleep disorders or problems related to sleep. Some conditions are more common than others.

  • Insomnia: People with insomnia struggle to fall asleep, stay asleep, or a combination of the two. They may spend hours trying to fall asleep, stay awake all night, or sleep only for short periods. Insomnia can be acute, which means it lasts for a short period of time, or chronic, lasting for a month or longer. Individuals who have insomnia may be depressed, irritable, or sleepy during the day, and have trouble with focus, memory, and learning.
  • Sleep apnea: This disorder causes a person to stop breathing for seconds or minutes, or breathe shallowly, in their sleep. This may happen when the sleeper's airway collapses or is blocked. People who have sleep apnea are often tired during the day, which can lead to accidents at work and on the road.
  • Restless legs syndrome (RLS): Individuals with RLS feel an uncomfortable tingling, burning, or crawling sensation in their legs when they lie down, which can make it hard to fall asleep. They may need to move their legs periodically to get relief.
  • Narcolepsy: Narcolepsy is a condition that disrupts a person's sleep cycle, causing them to feel overwhelmingly tired during the day. People with narcolepsy often fall asleep at unexpected moments during the day, such as at work or in the middle of meals. They may have hallucinations or vivid dreams that prevent them from getting adequate sleep at night. The associated fatigue can lead to accidents and injuries, and can make it hard to perform at work.
  • Parasomnias: Parasomnias are sleep disorders that cause people to behave unusually while they are sleeping or falling asleep. These include sleepwalking, sleep eating, or talking.
  • Periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD): People with this condition experience poor quality sleep because their arms and legs are constantly twitching while they sleep. While periodic limb movement disorder may occur on its own, it is also common in people who have narcolepsy.

If you have or suspect that you have a sleep disorder, it is very important to see a doctor and receive an official diagnosis before asking your employer for an accommodation. Your employer may request documentation or a doctor's statement describing the nature of your disability, so that they can develop a plan of action.

How Sleep Disorders Impact Job Performance

Sleep deprivation is a serious problem among American workers, with roughly one-third of adults in the U.S. struggling to sleep at night. Studies exploring the link between lack of sleep and work performance connect sleep deprivation with low productivity, frequent employee absences, and workplace accidents and injuries. Researchers estimate that a lack of sleep significantly raises healthcare prices and indirectly costs employers $150 billion a year.

People with sleep disorders may find it especially hard to come to work and perform to the best of their abilities. Insufficient or disrupted sleep mentally and physically affects workers in a variety of ways.

  • Concentration problems: Sleep deprivation makes it difficult to focus on tasks and ignore distractions. While people who struggle to concentrate may be less productive overall, reduced concentration can be extremely dangerous for workers in high risk positions and those who must drive or operate machinery.
  • Fatigue: Many sleep disorders cause daytime fatigue and a lack of energy. Along with reduced productivity, drowsiness is associated with accidents and injuries, leading to 1.2 million traffic collisions every year.
  • Cognitive problems: Even a single sleepless night negatively impacts cognitive performance. Sleep-deprived individuals may struggle to retain memories and perform tasks that require both speed and accuracy.
  • Ability to plan: Insufficient sleep makes it more difficult to plan ahead, primarily because sleep deprivation changes the way the brain understands risks and rewards. Tired individuals may struggle with making positive decisions and prioritizing information or tasks because they over or underestimate the risks and benefits involved.
  • Falling asleep at unusual times: People with sleep disorders, especially narcolepsy, may be more prone to falling asleep on the job. They may have the uncontrollable urge to fall asleep in the middle of a task or conversation, or while driving.
  • Stress intolerance: While stress may cause or exacerbate some sleep disorders, especially insomnia, sleep deprivation can also reduce an individual's ability to handle stress and negative emotions.

How Your Employer Can Accommodate You

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that employers must make reasonable accommodations for disabled workers who are qualified to do their jobs. An accommodation can consist of changing the work environment, an individual's job duties, or the workplace structure to let the individual successfully perform their role. For people with sleep disorders, accommodations may take many different forms.

  • Flexible scheduling: Sleep disorders often make it difficult to wake up on time or fall asleep, making some people repeatedly late for work. Companies may penalize or fire employees who do not arrive on time. However, a flexible schedule can make it easier for people with sleep disorders to get rest when they can and perform better at work.
  • Remote work: Working remotely offers additional flexibility and allows employees to manage their symptoms at home.
  • Additional training for managers: Managers and supervisors should be aware of workers' disabilities so that they can provide the appropriate assistance when necessary and avoid misunderstandings. For example, managers should know when an employee who is often late to work has a sleep disorder.
  • Rest breaks: Many sleep disorders cause daytime fatigue, leaving workers tired on the job. More rest breaks or modified break schedules can help employees stay alert and fight drowsiness.
  • Policy modifications: Sometimes, companies may need to modify their workplace policies to accommodate an employee's disability. These modifications might include changing rules, extending deadlines, or adopting new antidiscrimination policies to benefit disabled individuals.
  • Reassignments: In certain situations, job reassignment can be considered a reasonable accommodation if the employer is not able to make other changes to assist a disabled employee.
  • Improved supervisory methods: Although requesting a new supervisor is not considered a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, requesting a change in supervisory methods is.
  • Service animals: Specially trained service dogs can help people with narcolepsy by sensing when a person is about to fall asleep, providing comfort, and alerting others in case of an emergency. Under Titles II and III of the ADA, service animals must be allowed to go with their owners into all areas where the general public are permitted.

Tips for Talking to Your Employer About Your Sleep Disorder

Talking to your employer about sleep disorders and asking for disability accommodations can be stressful. However, there are a few steps you can take to make the process go more smoothly.

  • Have a written medical diagnosis: In order to make a reasonable accommodation, your employer may need to determine that your sleep disorder fits the ADA definition of a disability. Having an official diagnosis demonstrates that you need accommodations due to a medical condition.
  • Start the conversation early: If you are a recent hire, bring up the subject of disability as soon as possible. This gives your employer time to make any necessary changes or adaptations to your role, the work environment, or workplace practices. Do not wait until you are struggling to ask for help.
  • Offer accommodation ideas: You and your doctor understand your condition best and know what types of accommodations will help you on the job. Create a list of modifications to present to your employer, or write down a detailed description of what you would like. Be sure to describe how an accommodation will help you perform your best.
  • Know your rights: Title I of the ADA provides detailed information about disabled workers' rights. If your sleep disorder fits the ADA definition of a disability and you are qualified to do your job, your employer must provide you with reasonable accommodations at work.
  • Be a self advocate: If you believe that your right to work has been violated, you can contact your local Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to file a discrimination claim.

Resources for Employees

  • Job Accommodation Network (JAN): JAN helps disabled individuals navigate issues related to disability and employment, free of charge. JAN consultants provide one-on-one assistance for workers, their family members, and employers.
  • Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP): A branch of the U.S. Department of Labor, ODEP works to develop policies that benefit workers with disabilities.
  • American Academy of Sleep Medicine: Boasting 11,000 members, this professional organization promotes research and education in the field of sleep medicine. The association's website features a variety of clinical resources, including Medicaid and Medicare information.
  • American Psychiatric Association (APA): With 37,400 members in over 100 countries, APA is the world's leading psychiatric organization. Visitors to the APA website can explore fact sheets on a variety of mental and behavioral health conditions.
  • Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA): ADAA offers a spectrum of resources on depression, anxiety, phobias, and obsessive compulsive disorder. The association's website features a directory of therapists, free webinars, and advice on living with anxiety and depression.
  • Narcolepsy Network: This organization offers support and advocacy for people with narcolepsy. The Narcolepsy Network's site includes helpful links about discussing the disorder with employers and potential employers.

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