Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Are "digital addiction" claims about to invade your workplace?


There is no doubt that addiction is a protected disability under the ADA (and Ohio's parallel law).

Typically, we think of addiction as relating to drugs or alcohol. But, there's a new wave of addictions on the horizon—digital addictions.

What are digital addictions?

  • Internet addiction disorder: excessive, habit-forming internet use that interferes with daily life. 
  • Gaming disorder: uncontrollable and persistent playing of video and digital games, that is harmful to an individual's well-being at the cost of fulfilling daily responsibilities and pursuing other interests, and without regard for negative consequence.
  • Smartphone addiction: an unstoppable and uncontrollable desire to use one's smartphone, which interferes with one's daily life.

Notice something in common to these three "addictions?" Each requires an interference with one's daily life. Sounds like an ADA-protected disability to me.

What does this mean for your workplace? If forms of "digital addiction" qualify as a diagnosed psychiatric disorder, then employees who suffer from it may be protected by the ADA. This development has potentially significant implications for your workplace.

  • Do you have employees who seem to spend an inordinate amount of time online? Is it affecting their performance and inhibiting their ability to perform the essential functions of their jobs? If so, might you have to engage those employees in the interactive process to determine if there exists a reasonable accommodation that enables them to perform those essential functions? For example, could you deny computer access to employees who do not need to use a computer for their jobs, and require that such employees leave their cell phones outside the work area?
  • Do you have a policy that prohibits non-work-related Internet use? If so, such a policy might run afoul of the ADA, just like hard-capped leave absence of policies. It’s not that employers cannot place reasonable limits on workplace computer use. By instituting a ban, however, employers are avoiding their obligations to engage in the interactive process, thereby violating the ADA.

What might this look like in your workplace?

Employer to employee, "Our IT department tells us you've spent 20 hour a week for the past 3 months surfing the Internet on non-work-related sites. We're going to have to let you go.

Employee responds: "But I'm addicted to the Internet."

Employer: "Sorry, your non-work use of the Internet is stealing."
Employee's lawyer: "We're suing you for disability discrimination."

Likelihood of success (or at least a court buying this argument and setting this claim for a risky trial) aside, this scenario is not all that improbable to occur. Rest assured, though, that even if the DSM recognizes internet or other digital addictions as a bona fide mental disorder, employers should still be able reasonably to regulate use at work without running afoul of the ADA. Just as the ADA does not entitle an employee who claims sex addiction to sexually harass co-workers, or alcohol addiction to drink on the job, the ADA is almost certainly not going to permit a digital addict not to perform his or her job.

* Photo by Jacob Ufkes on Unsplash

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