Staying Employed With a Sleep Disorder: Disability and Workplace Rights

Holding a job while dealing with a sleep disorder, like sleep apnea, can be a challenge: You may struggle with waking up on time each day, staying alert all afternoon, or simply focusing on the details needed to complete your work.

If you're lucky, your higher-ups will be understanding and accommodating if you need an extra break or a pillow at your desk, but many employers aren't that flexible. For that reason, it's important to know your legal rights.

What Disability Means

If you meet the eligibility requirements, your disorder may be covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. According to the statute, a person is considered disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. A record of such an impairment can also help designate a disability, or if someone is regarded as having such an impairment.

In other words, if your sleep disorder impacts your ability to work, your employer may be required to provide reasonable accommodations—unless you simply can't do the job you were hired to do or your condition endangers the safety of others. (If you are a bus driver whose insomnia leaves you too tired to drive, for example, you may not have much recourse.)

Workplace Accommodations

So what are some possible accommodations for sleep disorders? The Job Accommodation Network, a service of the U.S. Department of Labor, offers several suggestions, depending on whether your problem is sleepiness, lack of concentration, attendance, or memory difficulties. They include:

  • Longer breaks or shorter, more frequent breaks
  • Changes in working shift to a time when you're more alert
  • Natural sunlight or full-spectrum lighting at your workspace
  • Flexible work hours
  • Backup coverage for necessary breaks
  • Written as well as verbal directions

There are also other strategies you can try that may lessen the effects of your disorder, such as taking short walks outside or catching a 20-minute nap. But while figuring out what you need to cope with is one thing, convincing your employer to allow it is quite another.

Speak Up Sooner Rather Than Later

Your best shot is to present solutions to your boss before your sleep problem becomes evident. Waiting until someone spots you snoozing at your desk or writes you up for taking too many breaks only weakens your position to negotiate—and it practically kills your chances of bringing legal action against your company if it comes to that.

You're only protected under the law if your employer is aware that you have a disability. Waiting to tell your boss about your problem until you're caught, or fired, leaves you with little legal recourse, according to Dave Jackson, national coordinator of Awake in America, a nonprofit group focused on sleep disorders.

Jackson recommends approaching your boss with some suggestions (not demands) for accommodations that would help—but also staying open-minded and flexible. You want to start off with a negotiation, not a confrontation.

"Tell your boss that you think you have a medical problem and that you're going to seek treatment," says Jackson. "Also send a certified letter to your employer and to yourself documenting your request. Provide information from a credible source on the disorder you think you have—that way you've already covered your case. Then make an appointment with a sleep specialist, if you haven't already."

Be specific about what accommodations you think might help, says Jackson, and explain why. Here are a couple of his suggestions of what to say: "I think it would really help if I could have one 40-minute break a day instead of two 20-minute breaks, so I can get some sleep" or "It would help me stay more alert if I could walk around for 10 minutes every hour or so, and of course, Id make up the time by working an extra hour each day."

Assure your boss that you put your job first, and that having accommodations won't affect your performance or productivity. "Employers look at the bottom line; if you don't want to step up to the plate and do your job, they'll find someone else," says Jackson. "If you take a 20-minute nap, you need to make it up. You're not going to be paid to sleep."

Pursuing Your Options

Whether it's a big corporation or a family business, a brand-new job, or a position you've held for years, challenging the norm can be intimidating. One important thing to remember (and to remind your employer) is that the right treatment, once you find it, can go a long way toward improving your performance.

Matt Hanover, 44, thinks back to the dream job at a cable news network that he landed right out of college, at a time he was suffering from undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea. "I didn't last long before I quit; I just couldn't do it," says Hanover, now a digital media executive in Santa Monica, Calif. "Being at work at 8 a.m. every day in a coat and tie was just too exhausting. Instead, I quit and went into consulting, so that I could sleep late and make my own schedule." Now that he's had surgery to correct his apnea, he wishes he'd known his options much earlier.

Then there are times when even with treatment, severe sleep problems—often compounded with other health issues—leave you with almost no employment options. Donna McLellan, 52, managed a restaurant until her restless legs syndrome and insomnia made it increasingly difficult to show up for work and keep track of her staff. Eventually, she applied for Social Security disability benefits. In part, because she also suffers from fibromyalgia, migraines, and other chronic illnesses, she was awarded permanent benefits and now stays home as a caregiver to her aging parents.

For most people with sleep disorders, however, not working will not be an option—and the most likely solution will be one you can work out with your current employer. Going in with credible information, reasonable requests, and a commitment to getting your job done right will hopefully lead your boss to accommodate you willingly. If not, you may have to apply some legal pressure. "A lot of times it really takes a call from the sleep doctor, or a call from an attorney to rattle the cage," Jackson says.

If that doesn't work, you can charge your employer with discrimination by filing a written complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The commission will then notify your employer of the complaint within 10 days, conduct an investigation, and try to broker a solution. "It's not going to be an overnight thing; it could take weeks or months," Jackson says. "Could you be fired in the meantime? Yes."

The law may be on your side, but seeking legal action will not be quick or easy. "A lot of people back down because it's a long, long legal battle," Jackson says. Still, he knows of a few cases in which patients have persevered and won.

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