Seasonal Affective Disorder May Be a Disability; Viking-Related Depression is Not

  • Jan 23, 2018
  • ADA
  • Dennis J. Merley

The last couple of days have brought a sudden and dramatic upswing in the number of employees seeking accommodation of a condition known as Viking-Related Depression.

While this is a chronic (some might say annual) affliction that produces varying degrees of mental anguish, it is not a recognized medical condition that would be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The same is true for that odd condition known as “Packer Mania.”

What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

This is also the time of year when we see increased manifestation of  “Seasonal Affective Disorder.” (SAD), a recurring form of depression that crops up at a certain time of year for those who are afflicted.  While some people doubt the legitimacy of this condition, it is generally recognized as a valid diagnosis.

SAD occurs mostly in northern regions where shorter days and limited sunlight trigger the affliction.  Symptoms typically include those most often associated with depression, such as low energy, sleep disruption, appetite changes, difficulty concentrating and feelings of hopelessness or despair.  It is estimated that 5% of the population of the United States suffers from SAD, the vast majority of them being female.

Because SAD appears to be caused by the lack of exposure to sunlight (and corresponding decreases in serotonin), it is usually treated by increasing the sufferer’s proximity to natural sunlight and/or exposure to special lamps that simulate the sun’s beneficial effects.

Do I Have to Accommodate?

As with any assertion of medical impairment, an employee claiming to suffer from SAD may (and should) be required to submit verification by the employee’s health care provider.  If the provider verifies that the condition exists and that it substantially impairs one or more major life activities (e.g. sleeping, thinking, concentrating), the employer may be covered under the ADA.  In that event, the employer will be required to undertake an interactive analysis to consider whether and to what extent the employee can be accommodated to permit performance of the essential functions of the job.

At least one federal appeals court has ruled that SAD is a recognized disability under the ADA.  In that case, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury verdict and award of monetary damages in favor of a teacher who claimed that her school unlawfully refused her request to be moved from a windowless classroom as an accommodation.

Accommodation of employees with SAD is often relatively straightforward.  Employers should evaluate whether they can move the affected employee to a work location with more windows or other exposure to natural light.  More frequent breaks allowing the employee to step outside can also be effective, as might a change in schedule allowing the employee to wake up in the daylight and get to work later.  Employers also have purchased specialized lamps or allowed the employee to bring in such a lamp from home.

Bottom Line

Let’s face it – many of us feel a twinge of apprehension as the first snowflakes signal the arrival of yet another long Minnesota winter.  However, those with a bona fide diagnosis of SAD cannot just be dismissed as having the “winter blues.”  Instead, they are entitled to consideration for reasonable accommodation just like any other disabled employee.

They might also be entitled to rights and protections under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) if they are certified as having a serious medical condition.