What to Do When Discrimination at Work Affects Mental Health

What to Do When Discrimination on the Job Affects Mental Health

We’ve all had crazy days at work. Days when the sheer enormity of the workload makes life hectic and stressful. Such conditions, when combined with discrimination on the job, can make it hard to stay balanced and can even begin to affect mental stability and health.

Much of the law meant to protect employees against discriminatory behavior at the workplace is aimed at defining the conditions under which an employer may be held liable. However, employees need to also know that when discrimination at work begins to take a toll on mental health, the law provides recourse and remedies.

Ways Discrimination on the Job Can Affect Mental Health

Discrimination can be a heavy burden to bear for employees. The result is often a number of distressful symptoms related to emotional and psychological instability. Symptoms may include depression, anxiety, insomnia, nightmares and more. Typically, the negative consequences of discrimination go far beyond the effects on a career and reach into home and family life as well.

The psychological effects can also start a chain reaction leading to physical changes as well. EEOC discrimination cases reflect a number of physical ailments suffered by employees as a result of various types of discrimination. For instance, one case involving forced resignation based on discrimination left the employee with stomach pains, weight gain and bouts of anger.

Another result of employment discrimination is the condition commonly referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD sometimes arises in employment discrimination cases involved ongoing harassment and hostile work environments. It symptoms are a wide range of physical and mental ailments which can easily place an employee’s mental health on the line.

Fortunately, when the mental and emotional distress that comes as a result of employment discrimination gets out of hand, the law steps in to remedy the situation.

Remedies Available When Discrimination on the Job Affects Mental Health

All of the federal employment discrimination laws provide remedies for employees. These can be compensatory damages or pecuniary damages. Compensatory damages may involve back pay, front pay and reinstatement. These are types of damages that can either be satisfied via monetary payments or by getting the employee back in the position he or she would have been in had the discrimination not occurred.

Non pecuniary compensatory damages are less easy to define. These may or may not be monetary damages, but most often are subjective losses such as mental and emotional distress. Non pecuniary compensatory damages can be awarded only in some instances under employment discrimination law. The main phrase used to describe such losses is emotional distress.

Damages for emotional distress are capped in Title VII and other employment discrimination laws. The maximum that an employee can receive is $300,000. Only a handful of cases in federal district court or in front of EEOC administrative judges have awarded this maximum amount, however.

Discrimination Affecting Mental Health Must Be Proven

Emotional distress in an employment discrimination case will not be presumed. Instead, it requires direct proof of mental anguish and harm and that the condition was a direct result of the discrimination at the heart of a case.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 ensured that employees could be remedied when mental health became affected in employment discrimination cases. It allows compensation for “emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish and loss of enjoyment of life.”

An employee bears the burden of proving that he or she in fact suffered the emotional distress alleged. Employees must also prove that unlawful behavior based on discrimination was the cause of the injuries. When the evidence shows that the unlawful discrimination was only a partial cause, it could lower the amount of damages awarded.

Courts will accept an employee’s testimony alone when specific and conclusive enough to meet the burden of proof. More often, however, the corroboration of an interested witness, such as a co-worker or family member, can lead to a successful claim for non-pecuniary compensatory damages for emotional distress.

EEOC Guidelines on Mental Health Damages

The EEOC has provided guidance on provisions the Civil Rights Act of 1991 which outlines compensatory and punitive damages for intentional employment discrimination cases. The agency provides information on the way it assess compensatory and punitive damages for intentional discrimination based on Section 102 of the act.

According to the EEOC, if the emotional distress alleged in an employment discrimination claim began before the discrimination occurred, it will be difficult to prove that damages should be awarded. However, even if an employee has pre-existing emotional difficulties, damages could be awarded if the discriminatory conduct of an employer caused the mental health of the employee to deteriorate.

The agency further advises to consider a number of relevant factors when assessing damages for detrimental effects on mental health. The key is to focus on whether and to what extent an employer’s actions caused emotional harm. If there are other factors which contributed to the deterioration of mental health in a discrimination charge, courts are likely to reduce or decide against the award of non-pecuniary compensatory damages.

Further, the EEOC stresses that determining the amount of damages for emotional harm and distress in employment discrimination cases will be based on the severity of the harm and the amount of time that an employee has been forced to endure the harm.

For example, higher damage awards may go to employees who have suffered an actual, document physical ailment based on the distress as opposed to feeling vaguely discouraged. Also, the award could be higher if an employee has endured years of humiliation as opposed to a single month of depressed feelings.

When Discrimination On the Job Affects Mental Health

When discrimination on the job begins to affect mental health, employees need to know they are protected by the law and can be compensated for such losses. Experiencing or enduring discrimination on the job can take its toll on an employee both physically and mentally. Fortunately, the law provides remedies for even the intangible results of dealing with discrimination in the workplace.

Manuela Varela

Relations Manager

Manuela Varela has been with Shegerian & Associates since August 2022. She is responsible for outreach and marketing on behalf of the firm and manages relationships between firms and referring attorneys. She is also responsible for developing business opportunities and affiliations. Manuela graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a degree in Economics and Political Science.