How To Talk To Employers About Your Mental Illness

One of the awesome things about working at Bustle (and I mean this) is that they’re a very cool workplace about mental illness; I’ve needed days off and peculiar scheduling because of my lovely combination of depression and PTSD, and nobody has batted an eyelid. But not everybody is in the same position, and you may be wondering about whether it’s a “safe” idea to disclose your mental illness to your employer, or if they’d just shove you out into the street while laughing at you for being crazy. (Hint: that will not happen. And if it does, call the media and sue.) You don’t have to tell your employer about your mental illness, but if it’s going to make your life and job easier if they can make some changes to help you, then it’s a good idea. And there are some ways to make it easier for yourself.

Whether this is a big deal or a small-scale conversation depends on your workplace, but even if you work casually for friends, it’s still valuable to do your homework, including knowing the law, workplace policy, and proper procedures about this stuff. Even if it’s a casual job, your mental health matters, and you deserve to have a safe, helpful work environment that enables you to do your job to the best of your ability.

Here are seven steps for talking to your employer about your mental illness and shaping your job to accommodate it. It’s not as scary as it sounds, I promise.

1. Know Your Rights

If you’re uncertain about whether your employer is actually legally required not to discriminate against your illness, check out the Americans With Disabilities Act. The Office On Women’s Health makes it clear that the Act, which protects against discrimination in hiring and on the job, applies just as much to mental as it does to physical disabilities, including mental illnesses. It points out that mental illness under the Act has three possible definitions, and you only have to meet one: “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of an individual, OR a record of such an impairment, OR being regarded as having such an impairment.”

The Office also points out that it’s the job of the person with the mental illness to tell their employer; they can’t make concessions and help to make a better environment if they don’t know about it. The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), says that you’re protected under the Act if your disability would “substantially impair one or more major life activities” if left untreated, and that “you are able to perform the essential functions of your job with or without reasonable accommodations”. If, for example, you have anxiety, it means that if you’re still able to perform your job, either without help or if reasonable accommodation is made for you (like working from home or having daily “time outs”), you qualify as protected.

Individual states have their own laws about discrimination against mental illness in the workplace, too (California is an example). Whether you’re worried about encountering resistance or not, it’s a good idea to be versed in your particular rights and expectations in specific circumstances.

2. Investigate Employer Procedure

The technical term for talking about mental illness with an employer is “disclosing;” you’re disclosing your condition to people who can help make “accommodations,” another technical term that means altering your job in specific ways to fit your illness. If your work’s got some kind of handbook or HR procedure, you should investigate; formal disclosure in your workplace might be supposed to be done in writing, or in a meeting with certain people present. Or there could be no procedure, in which case you have to make it up as you go…

3. Be Careful About Figuring Out Who’s Set A Precedent

If there’s no procedure in place for disclosure, or you just want to see what happened to other people in your position in your workplace, you may want to make inquiries. But before you get gossiping, remember something vitally important: privacy law. Talking about the disabilities of others in the workplace is illegal, so don’t go probing about things that aren’t your business. If you chance on somebody else in the office who openly has accommodations, and can give you informal advice about how to make the formal declaration and what reactions to expect, then that’s a good resource. But don’t roam around the staffroom poking into other peoples’ private psychiatric history.

4. Talk To The Proper People

There are certain people who need to be in the loop on this one. One is your treatment provider, whether it’s your therapist, the person who’s prescribing your medication, or some other person professionally involved in your treatment. NAMI recommends asking them to give you documentation that will explain your situation to your employers and validate your claims. The law only mandates that you disclosure to “your employer,” but whether that’s your direct superior, the person who hired you, a manager, or the big boss is dependent on company policy, and who actually has the power to make accommodations for you.

5. Know What You’re Telling Them

Don’t just storm in and yell “I Have Depression” while waving pom-poms. (OK, you weren’t going to be doing that anyway.) The advice from organizations like NAMI is that the most helpful thing you can do in this situation is be specific and clear. What sort of things will you need to do your job properly? Do you need to work from home at certain times, have a different kind of break schedule, or wear headphones? Help ’em out.

If you don’t know what accommodations might help you out, have a conversation with your therapist, GP, or somebody who works in disability law, and get a list of some specific ones: the Job Accommodation Network has a long list, from restructuring time at work to modifying leave. If you don’t know specifically what would work for you, start a dialogue with your employer where you might try different things; they may have suggestions too.

There’s a strong chance you’ll be talking to them about this because of a specific flare-up or diagnosis, so come prepared with ideas on making life easier. But remember, it’s perfectly valid to disclose even if you don’t have a serious episode at that particular time; it may be a good idea to discuss it when you’re feeling fine, so that they understand whats going on and all the pieces are in place if stuff starts to get serious.

6. Have Statistics Up Your Sleeve

There was worry when the Act was first brought in that accommodations for mental illness would cost employers big bucks, but a report on the Act actually found that accommodations “for workers with psychiatric disabilities are, in most cases, inexpensive or free. An employee with psychiatric problems may initially need more time from supervisors or coworkers, but research shows that the need tends to fade over time.” And Psych Central reports that most accommodations are “what the law refers to as “reasonable,” meaning the organization will not suffer financially if it accommodates a person’s need.” So if your employer seems worried that you’re going to somehow bankrupt them, be aware the statistics are on the side of cheapness. (Not that it should matter either way, legally-speaking.)

7. Know How To Escalate If Necessary

If things aren’t going as planned, whether it’s well-meaning employers not really knowing how to abide by the law, or something a bit more nefarious and discriminatory, have your ducks in row to make sure you can deal with it. Get mental health support for the undoubtedly stressful circumstances, and know how to take the issue further, whether it’s going up the chain of command to a bigger boss or filing a complaint with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). NAMI recommends that it’ll be helpful to take notes throughout the disclosure process as evidence of anything that might go wrong, for use later if necessary.

Chances are strong that you’ll get what you need if you go in well-educated and well-prepared; don’t expect catastrophe. But you’ve got to take the lead. You can do it! I believe in you!

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