Is everything a disease now? (Editor’s Notes)

There has to be a limit to what is deserving of accommodation
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/24/2013

The next time an employee rolls in 30 minutes late, or completely forgets to come to work, you may need to step back before issuing the standard discipline and ask yourself: “Is this a disability I need to accommodate?”

To my knowledge, the notion of lateness as a disease hasn’t been tested on this side of the pond but the case of 57-year-old Jim Dunbar is making ripples in the United Kingdom.

Dunbar has been late for pretty much everything in his life. Work, dates, meals with friends — even funerals — are on his list. After decades of this behaviour, Dunbar was diagnosed with chronic lateness, according to the Daily Mail. The working theory is the condition is “caused by the same part of the brain affected by those who suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and means Mr. Dunbar cannot properly gauge how long things take to complete.”

Dunbar said his family thinks he’s just making excuses, adding it has affected his entire life.

“The reason I want it out in the open is that there has got to be other folk out there with it, and they don’t realize it’s not their fault,” he said. “I blamed it on myself and thought, ‘Why can’t I be on time?’ I lost a lot of jobs. I can understand people’s reaction and why they don’t believe me… I can’t overstate how much it helped to say it was a condition.”

Employers are on the hook for accommodating plenty of illnesses and diseases — for better or for worse. The list of disabilities requiring accommodation is too long to list but includes physical disabilities (such as muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy) and chronic diseases (such as asthma and arthritis). And the list is growing, encompassing mental health issues (such as depression and anxiety) and addiction to drugs and alcohol.

Companies are required to accommodate workers with disabilities to the point of undue hardship, which is appropriate. After all, accommodation is generally in the best interests of employers and employees alike. Organizations may bemoan the lengths they need to go to in order to prove undue hardship but the high bar is appropriate.

Employers that take the proper steps to accommodate workers benefit from increased productivity, loyalty and morale. But there has to be a limit to what is deserving of accommodation.

On the cover of this issue, we take a look at DSM-5, the newly revised “bible” for the psychological and psychiatric community. It covers a lot, as senior editor Sarah Dobson notes in her story.

But it doesn’t include chronic lateness. Sheri Jacobson, a psychotherapist in the U.K., probably said it best when she opined that turning everyday human behaviour into a medical condition would be “unwise.”

We’ve come a long way in recent years in recognizing mental health as a disability, but there is still a long way to go in convincing some of its legitimacy as an issue worth accommodation in the workplace.

Cases such as Dunbar, while we can all feel sympathy for him, aren’t helping advance that cause. Not everything can be a disease, least of all a problem that can be solved with a good wristwatch.

Reader Comments

I wholeheartedly agree with an unlimited vacation days policy. Too many managers have this false idea or perception that employees have to work specific hours each day and that if they don’t, this is considered not putting in an honest day’s work.

Rather than focusing on how many minutes people stare at their computers or sit at their desks, employers should be more concerned with the outcomes — the actual projects that are being completed as opposed to micromanaging their work time.

Setting fixed schedules is a thing of the past.

— Walt, commenting on Claudine Kapel’s blog
“Let’s revisit how employees get time off”

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