Sleep Disorder Disability Accommodations at Work

A sleep disorder such as obstructive sleep apnea can impact your daily activities including work. However, disability laws in the US mean you don’t have to conceal your diagnosis. Through consultations with your sleep specialist, your employer may be able to make accommodations at work for your sleep disorder.

How Obstructive Sleep Apnea Can Affect Work

A disorder like obstructive sleep apnea can disrupt your sleep quality. Sleep is an important restorative tool for both the mind and the body, and disrupted sleep can soon impact your daytime activities.

Obstructive sleep apnea happens when the airways become blocked as you sleep. The drop in oxygen levels prompts the brain to wake the body for air. In severe cases, this can happen over 30 times every hour. Therefore, diagnosis and treatment are crucial to restoring improved sleep health.

However, obstructive sleep apnea can still lead to drowsiness and difficulties with concentration and memory that could impact your job

Does a Sleep Disorder Qualify for Disability?

A disorder such as obstructive sleep apnea may qualify as a disability under US law. This is because in 2008 sleep was added to the list of major life activities, a limitation of which due to a physical or mental impairment may qualify as a disability.

However, such a qualification is issued on a case-by-case evaluation rather than just on the merit of having a named condition like obstructive sleep apnea. While the 2008 ruling increased the chance of qualifying as disabled in the workplace with a sleep disorder, you will still need to show an employer how the disorder could impact your job to obtain disability accommodations.

To receive reasonable accommodations that allow you to perform the essential duties of your job, your sleep specialist will need to outline specific limitations caused by your disorder. They may send a report detailing your diagnosis and symptoms, how the disorder impacts your day, and suggestions on reasonable accommodations your employer could make.

The key is the phrase “reasonable accommodations” rather than “alterations” that do not improve your performance in the workplace or could place your employer in financial difficulty. Reasonable accommodations include:

  • reassigning non-essential tasks to other employees
  • providing additional training
  • amendments to your work schedule
  • alterations to the structure of the job
  • unpaid or paid leave as required due to the impact of the disorder

Discussing Your Sleep Disorder with Your Employer

You do not need to inform a potential employer of a disorder such as obstructive sleep apnea until after you have been employed. However, discussing the condition before its effects become an issue that affects your job performance can benefit both you and your employer.

Understandably, someone may be anxious about bringing up such a topic with an employer. However, an employer may have no experience with or knowledge of the impact of such a disorder. If a sleep disorder starts to impact your job before you disclose it to your employer, they could easily think you are either lazy or just not up to the job.

Whether you disclose your condition formally or informally may depend on your relationship with your employer. However, it is important to begin the discussion before it impacts your work. 

It is also important to come to the discussion prepared. You will likely need to educate them on your disorder and the potential impact it could have on your workplace duties. Print out some easily digestible facts that can explain the disorder, its impact, and how managing the symptoms can help workplace productivity.

Providing evidence-based facts will help ease concerns over the extent of the impact the disorder may have -- and how some reasonable accommodations can benefit both parties. Your sleep specialist can help prepare a list of specific accommodations aimed at helping you fulfill your essential workplace duties.

This list should accentuate the positives as well as highlight the challenges. If one of your symptoms is memory issues, you could detail to your employer how you take extensive notes to ensure you do not forget important information. You should work with your employer to bring about the alterations that you require. 

Some specific accommodations could include:

  • remote working from home
  • flexible schedule
  • nap breaks
  • personalized equipment such as a standing desk

Your employer may not initially be open to fully implementing the accommodations advised by your sleep specialist. Entering the discussion with one or two backup ideas can help smooth the process. 

You should look to plan for the impact of the worst day caused by your disorder. This will help prevent potentially difficult conversations on why agreed accommodations have not worked. However, the longer you stay in the job, the more likely your duties will evolve.

This is why open communication with your employer is key. As your role within the company develops, so could your essential duties. This will mean re-evaluating adjustments to previously agreed accommodations to ensure you can fulfill any new essential duties.

As everyone is different, your symptoms could also change as time goes by. Any changing circumstances may require a reassessment of the existing accommodations to ensure you can still fulfill all your essential work duties.

Should I Tell My Coworkers?

This is a personal decision. However, it can help if you explain the accommodations made to you by an employer. By explaining your disorder and the impact it has on your overall life, not just your work life, your co-workers may be more understanding as well as learn about a sleep disorder such as obstructive sleep apnea.

Final Thoughts

Working with your employer on disability accommodations can benefit both parties. Agreeing on the accommodations needed to allow you to fulfill your essential duties can take a little while to finalize, but the result will allow you to function to your full potential. 

Keeping an open line of communication between you, your sleep specialist and your employer will help manage the accommodations as your duties evolve and progress.