Disclosing Mental Health Issues on the Job

The pros, cons and important steps for sharing a mental health struggle with your employer

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Mental Health issues by their very nature affect how you feel and think at work. Most people with a mental health problem continue to work, even as they struggle to get better. A work atmosphere can actually be supportive and helpful in terms of mental health or alternatively can be chronically and intensely stressful thereby contributing to one’s illness. Given most people spend a preponderance of their day at their workplace is it a good idea to disclose a current mental health problem to an employer and if so, when?

There are some true pros and cons to be assessed when considering work disclosure. One con: Even today, when most people are much more educated about mental health than in the past, there is still a stigma around mental illness. Individuals come with their own set of beliefs, past experiences, fears and agendas which impact how they will view such a disclosure. Legally an employer cannot fire you for having a mental illness if you are able to do the job with or without accommodations. However, some employers have skirted this legality by making it all but impossible for a someone to stay. A pro for disclosing is that being able to be honest is often extremely relieving on its own and in addition allows you to discuss possible accommodations that may help you. Having enough flexibility to get to a therapy appointment, having a quiet room to go to for a break or to concentrate on something, being able to work from home on a bad day, even – if need be – taking a leave of absence to recover and then return to work. The ability to have someone you work with understand your struggle and be supportive makes most people, whatever the mental health diagnosis, feel better. 

This means the first step is assessing your boss, your HR executive if you have one, or your co-worker. Do they seem like the kind of person who is capable of being understanding? Do they strike you as being able to acknowledge a mental illness is like any other medical illness? Can you think of accommodations that could make your situation more manageable and less stressful? Is your illness likely impacting your ability to work to the best of your ability? Is the cost of maintaining the silent status quo taking its toll on your wellbeing? Answering YES to these types of self-questions should let you know it is probably worth the risk to disclose. There is no guarantee a boss or co-worker will not react poorly or stigmatize you, but suffering and performing poorly for what to them may seem like no known reason is worse and may put your job at risk anyway. 

The person you disclose your illness to may depend upon your company’s structure. Often a business with a human resources department has procedures and protocols in place for helping employees with mental health issues. This could be your best first stop. If there is no HR department, then either your boss or a trusted co-worker are first. Sometimes it is difficult to know what words to choose and how to come across. Rehearsing what you want to say can really help. Try writing it down, or even better, try it out with a therapist, or a close family member who you trust. Come in with a list of reasonable, but helpful to you accommodations and why and how specifically they would help you. Let your employer know you are getting treatment and therefore there is an expectation you will recover. Remember that the American Disabilities Act protects you from being fired, but do not set up an adversarial situation by threatening an employers with this. They know they should not fire you, they can really be your ally in recovery and you can be their ally in setting a precedent of a good and productive working environment despite struggles with mental health.

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