Working from home for medical reasons poses challenges for employers

While working from home has become much more popular in recent years – an 11% increase just since 2014, according to SHRM – this can pose challenges for HR teams when the request is due to medical reasons.

Even if your workplace has guidelines for remote workers, requests to telecommute as an accommodation must be carefully reviewed to assure you’re in compliance with ADA regulations

The ADA prohibits discrimination in employment based on disability, and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to applicants and employees. A reasonable accommodation entails any changes in the work environment, or in the way things are customarily done, which enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities.

In these cases, it’s important for both the HR rep and a physician to gather information about the accommodation request to gauge if telecommuting is medically necessary or simply a personal preference.

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The HR rep needs to gather specific information from the employee, including the following:

· Explanation of why it’s medically necessary to work from home
· The essential job functions the employee finds challenging to perform in the office
· The duration of the request to work from home
· Whether telecommuting for a period of time enables the employee to return to work in the office and perform essential functions of the job
· Confirmation that they have a dedicated workspace with phone, Wi-Fi and other essential technology

Meanwhile, the physician should gather certain information from the HR rep, including:

· A description of the medical condition
· How working from home will help the employee better manage that medical condition and perform the essential job functions
· The restrictions (things the employee cannot do) and limitations (things the employee should not do)
· Why the employee can work from home but not in the office
· How long the employee will require the accommodation (short or long term)
· Likelihood that the employee will ever be able to perform their essential job functions from the office

With more offices adopting an agile model with open workspaces, employees now have more natural lighting, feel less cramped and have more opportunity for collaboration with their colleagues. However, these advantages to many people can be challenges for others.

Light and odor sensitivity, as well as distractions, are some of the most frequent triggers of medical conditions that drive the need for accommodations. In many cases, some simple modifications to the workplace can help solve or alleviate some of the employee’s challenges.

Light sensitivity, or photophobia, is intolerance to light, which can cause a painful reaction to strong lighting. Adjustments can be made to help alleviate this, including head lighting modifications, window shading, cubicle shields for fluorescent lights, polarized glasses and/or prescription eyewear.

Odor sensitivity is another common issue in open workspaces – especially for employees who previously were in a contained space with infrequent interaction with colleagues. Consider workplace signage prohibiting perfume or cologne in the office, enforcing a fragrance policy, air purifiers throughout or in select areas, a transition to scent-free cleaning products, or upgrading the ventilation system in the office to allow more air flow. For food smells, ask employees to eat in a designated area and not bring food to their workspace.

Distractibility is the inability to sustain attention or attentiveness to one task. With agile workspaces often involving moving around frequently or being positioned in a high-traffic area, this can be challenging to some employees. Consider providing noise cancelling headphones, white noise machines, cubicle shields, noise barriers or an adjustment to the office configuration. Consider allocating space within the open work plan that’s off-limits for meetings and away from heavy foot traffic.

While agile workspaces have many benefits, they can pose challenges to your workforce. It’s your responsibility to work with employees to accommodate medical requests which may result from light sensitivity, distractions or even odors. Following these simple tips can help assure a healthy, happy and productive workplace for your team.

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