Staying Employed With a Sleep Disorder: Disability and Workplace Rights


Don't wait until you're caught sleeping on the job to talk to your boss about a problem.(SCOTT GRIESSEL/FOTOLIA)

Holding a job while dealing with a sleep disorder can be a challenge: You may struggle with waking up on time each day or 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 he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or 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 cant 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.)

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 shift to a time when youre more alert
  • Natural sunlight or full-spectrum lighting at your workspace
  • Flexible hours
  • Backup coverage for breaks
  • Written, as well verbal, directions

Next Page: Telling your boss

[ pagebreak ]4 Strategies for Coping at Work

businesswoman-desk-sleepy businesswoman-desk-sleepy More tips for getting through the day

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 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.

Youre only protected under the law if your employer is aware that you have a disability. Waiting to tell your boss about your problem until youre 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 that provides educational outreach, financial aid for patients without insurance, and advocacy.

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 youve already covered your case. Then make an appointment with a sleep specialist, if you havent 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 wont affect your performance or productivity. "Employers look at the bottom line; if you dont want to step up to the plate and do your job, theyll find someone else," says Jackson. "If you take a 20-minute nap, you need to make it up. Youre not going to be paid to sleep."

Next Page: Pursuing your options

[ pagebreak ]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 doesnt 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.