Tips for Disclosing a Mental Illness at Work

If you’re dealing with one or more mental illnesses while trying to keep up with your job, it may be time to request accommodations from your employer. Before disclosing a mental illness at work, consider how you’ll do it, what accommodations you’ll need, and what to do if your employer doesn’t respond well to your requests. Employers can also consider the most productive way to react when an employee discloses a mental illness at work.

Mental illness can affect all aspects of life, especially during your working hours. That’s why telling your employer about any mental illness you have may be a good decision. Of course, the idea of disclosing a mental illness at work can be intimidating, as you may be worried about judgment or even job loss. Fortunately, you have legal rights when it comes to your mental health, and you might even find that letting others know about your mental illness can actually help you at work. As you think about disclosing a mental illness at your place of employment, consider some choices and details for the best results.

Statistics on Mental Illness in the Workplace 

If you’re considering disclosing a mental illness at work, you’re certainly not alone. More people than you might assume have been diagnosed with some type of mental illness, though some will choose not to disclose it at work. In fact, the CDC reported that about 20% of adults in the U.S. have been diagnosed with a mental illness, and 63% of Americans are part of the workforce. That’s a lot of people who have to work while dealing with a mental illness.

Additionally, Harvard Business Review said its study found 76% of respondents displayed one or more symptoms of mental health issues as of 2021. That’s a 17% increase from 2019, showing that even people who haven’t been diagnosed with a disorder might still suffer from one or more negative effects associated with one. It’s no wonder that 91% of survey respondents agreed that a company’s culture should clearly support employees’ mental health. And that starts with employees feeling comfortable disclosing a mental illness at work.

How to Decide If You Want to Disclose Your Mental Illness

Not everyone with a mental illness will want to let their boss know about it, so you shouldn’t feel pressured to do so as soon as you’ve been diagnosed. But you should know that disclosing a mental illness at work has some benefits. For example, you could be entitled to accommodations that would make your day at work easier for you.

You might also feel more relaxed and able to be yourself once your employer knows the underlying reason for your actions or moods in the workplace. Finally, you might get support that you didn’t know you needed, even if it’s just a boss or coworker who reveals they also deal with the mental illness — or at least a few symptoms of it — that you have.

On the other hand, disclosing a mental illness at work may be unnecessary for some people. For instance, if you’re doing great at work and feel comfortable to be yourself there, you might not feel the need to get accommodations or support for your mental health. If you’re not looking for anything to change in the workplace, then disclosing a mental illness at work might not be on your mind.

Basically, before you decide to tell your employer about your health issues, consider what you hope to gain from it. If you need help during your workday, it’s worth your time to reveal your mental illness so you can get the accommodations you’re entitled to. But if you’re not looking for any accommodations or simply prefer to keep your mental health status private, rest assured that you’re certainly not required or expected to report it to your boss.

Understanding Your Legal Rights 

Before disclosing a mental illness at work, you should understand your rights. Keep in mind that the Americans with Disabilities Act protects you in a few ways. First, as mentioned above, you are not required to disclose your mental illness to your employer, as you have a right to privacy. But if you choose to do so, your employer cannot tell your coworkers about it.

In addition, your employer is not legally allowed to discriminate against you based on your mental illness. In fact, you’re entitled to accommodations that will help you do your job. Note that your employer can ask you to show paperwork from your doctor stating you need accommodations. As long as those accommodations are reasonable and allow you to fulfill your job duties, your employer will need to provide them.

Researching Potential Job Accommodations 

Once you’ve decided that disclosing a mental illness at work is right for you, start thinking about what kinds of accommodations would help. Your answers will vary depending on the type and severity of your mental illness. To get started, make a list of job duties that you currently struggle with. Then write down why you struggle with them and what adjustments would help you deal with them.

For example, if your work environment is too loud and distracting, consider asking if you can move your desk to a quieter area. Or find out if you can listen to soothing music or white noise on headphones as you work. You might even be able to work from home at least some of the time if your environment is too stressful, so ask your employer about this accommodation after disclosing a mental illness at work.

If you’re struggling to complete all your responsibilities or do them well — whether it’s due to tight deadlines or simply an overload of work — find out if you can get more flexible due dates or an adjusted workload. If you need time throughout the day to take your medication or time off for doctor appointments that will help your mental health, let your employer know you need your schedule to be more flexible. And if you have anxiety or other issues due to your interactions with specific people at work, ask if you can get a different supervisor or switch desks so you’re no longer near the source of your anxiety.

Of course, your mental health providers can help you come up with a list of accommodations you can present to your employer. You might find your boss could have some suggestions, too, especially if he or she has personal or professional experience with your mental illness. In the end, you get to propose the accommodations, but it’s up to your employer to agree to them. As long as the adjustments are reasonable and allow you to get at least the same amount of work done, your employer is expected to accommodate you.

Tips and Resources for Employees

If you’ve decided to disclose a mental illness at work, think about how you’re going to do it. If you feel comfortable with an in-person conversation, you can request a meeting with your supervisor. Let him or her know that you’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness and how that affects your workday.

If you have a list of accommodations ready, share it with your supervisor during the meeting. You might also choose to research the potential accommodations further and show your supervisor at a later date, or even brainstorm some ideas with him or her if you’re comfortable doing so.

If you’re worried about disclosing a mental illness at work in person, consider writing an email or a letter that you can place on your supervisor’s desk. Sometimes writing down your thoughts is easier than saying them in person. In fact, it’s a good idea to have your request for accommodations in writing, especially if your employer hesitates to make the proposed changes.

What can you do if your employer reacts badly or ignores your request for accommodations? You can contact his or her supervisor, or even human resources, to discuss the issue. If there are still no changes, or if your employer demotes or fires you shortly after disclosing a mental illness at work, you can contact the EEOC to report the company. You can also talk to an employment discrimination lawyer to find out what your legal options are. You should never be punished or feel intimidated after disclosing a mental illness at work — you have legal rights.

Tips and Resources for Employers and Managers

Whether you’re a supervisor whose employee has revealed a mental illness to you, or you’re curious about what to do if this happens in the future, it’s important to know how to react. Creating a supportive atmosphere where employees feel welcome to come to you with any issues benefits everyone. 

If an employee ends up disclosing a mental illness at work, be empathetic as they explain how the mental illness affects their workday. Remind them that this information will be kept confidential, and that you appreciate them coming to you with it.

If your employee doesn’t bring up any suggested accommodations first, ask what kinds of adjustments would be most helpful. If you have some ideas on helpful accommodations, or if you have personal experience with mental illness, feel free to let your employee know since this may be comforting or encouraging to them. Also, make sure you follow through with the plan for accommodations so the employee knows their needs are important and supported.

Resources

Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace and the ADA. This resource includes information about the Americans with Disabilities Act, including statistics about mental health issues and guidance on job accommodations.

Mental Health in the Workplace. This guide from the Centers for Disease Control includes tools and resources for employers and employees.

It’s a New Era for Mental Health at Work. This article published by Harvard Business Review explores how perceptions and policies surrounding mental health issues in the workplace are changing.

It’s important to make all employees feel welcome and appreciated in the office. Consider putting together a program or group that offers support and resources for people with mental illness in your workplace. You can get help with this from your human resources department, or reach out to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) for free guidance on assisting employees in the workplace.

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