We’re Addicted to … Everything? How to Handle Digital Addictions in the Workplace

By Miranda Watkins, Sara A. Zimmerman

May. 30, 2019

As the years go on, so too does the list of things to which people become addicted. Emerging front and center as a relatively new but common modern addiction — to which employers are having difficulty responding — is the concept of a digital addiction.

A digital addiction is more than a mindless but incessant checking of one’s phone, more than browsing Facebook while taking a break from company-focused work. It is a complete disruption to and dysregulation of the daily life of an individual, due to compulsions to engage in the addictive and cyclical behaviors.

Digital Addictions and Treatment

Like other addictions, a digital addiction essentially renders an “addict” unable to perform a major life activity, such as sleeping, eating or working. As with other addictions, a digital addiction often arises out of feelings of discontent, stress, pressure, anxiety, depression or other underlying mental health condition. Although the behaviors themselves (use of electronic devices) may seem more benign than drugs, alcohol or sex, the personal impact is no less severe.

And perhaps even more concerning is the fact that digital addictions can be hard to spot and even harder to stop. We live in a day and age that virtually necessitates constant and unwavering digital and electronic connection. Behaviors that may be dangerous for a minority of the population with a digital addiction are entirely socially acceptable for the majority of individuals, rendering the line between an addiction and a habit blurrier than ever.

As the prevalence and understanding of digital addictions rises, so too does an understanding of the disorder and its treatment. Although this addiction is not yet recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM-5, treatment programs are seeing the growing need for programs specifically tailored to digital and gaming addictions. Additionally, organizations worldwide have begun conducting investigations and research into the impact of a digital addiction upon both the quality and productivity of life.

What Does This Mean for Employers?

In recent years, employers have come to understand their obligations related to mental health issues and disabilities — employees are to be granted reasonable accommodations for mental health disorders the same as they would be for a physical disorder or illness. This includes, when applicable, leave to attend treatment on an inpatient, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient or outpatient basis under federal laws like the Family Medical Leave Act or Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as state laws, like the California Family Rights Act and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. What then is an employer’s obligation if an employee exhibits a digital addiction?

It is prudent to accommodate an individual with a digital addiction the same way you would accommodate any other individual: engage in the interactive process and review and discuss any restrictions, limitations or accommodations that may be needed. While there may be concerns regarding an employee’s ability to return to work in the digital age after receiving treatment for a directly related addiction, this concern cannot be used as a basis to engage in an adverse action against an employee.

This remains the case even if the disorder is not officially “diagnosable.” In other words, an employer must take a digital addiction seriously, even if it does not understand the addiction or personally believe the addiction is legitimate.

Where Do We Go From Here?

For now, there are several best practices employers can use concerning digital addictions. An up-to-date compliant handbook with policies addressing leaves and accommodations goes a long way. A handbook creates the foundation for your policies and procedures. If your handbook is wrong, or if you do not have a handbook at all, your internal policies and procedures are much more likely to be problematic and subject to tougher scrutiny.

Your handbook also needs to be acknowledged by your employees. You can use an employee’s acknowledgement to show they were well aware you were more than willing to reasonably accommodate them and welcomed any and all accommodation requests.

Documentation. Document notice of an employee’s alleged disability; meetings and communications discussing the alleged disability; and requested, offered or denied accommodations. Without documentation of this interactive process, it may as well have never happened.

Train your managers and supervisors. They can make or break your defense. They typically receive notice of an alleged disability or requested accommodation first. If they fail to take this seriously and begin the interactive process, your defense can be severely undermined. They need to know what constitutes “notice,” that the company has interactive process obligations and how to handle accommodation requests.

Do not be too quick in denying accommodations. The law requires that you participate in a “good faith” interactive process, which means considering each and every possible reasonable accommodation in “good faith.” Document any legitimate reasons why an accommodation may not be “reasonable,” but understand that not everything is “unreasonable.” While employers do not have to provide accommodations that are unduly burdensome, “undue burden” is an extremely tough standard to meet and is looked at primarily in financial terms by courts.

Finally, stay up-to-date on changes in the law concerning digital addictions. A critical part of avoiding future claims is being aware of your ever-changing legal obligations.

Miranda Watkins is an associate with labor and employment law firm Fisher Phillips in San Diego.

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