Mental Illness in the Workplace: When and how to talk about it with your boss – Part 3 of 5

Editor’s note: This is part three of a five-part series addressing mental illness in the workplace. Part one explores mental illness in the United States, part two explains ways in which mental illness affects work, part three explains when and how to tell a manager about a mental illness, part four addresses how managers should best proceed with an employee who has a mental illness, and part five makes the connection between the dental industry and depression.

Before we dive into this, let’s talk about ailments that could affect an employee’s work performance and how that employee should address it.

If performance is suffering because of a migraine, an employee would tell their employer about the migraine. If a job couldn’t be done because of a broken arm, an employee would tell their employer about the broken arm. If you could only sit in a chair at your computer for two hours a day because of chronic back pain, you would let your employer know. If you were constantly late or if you required more time to complete a task because of a mental illness, such as anxiety, depression, ADHD or bipolar disorder, it would make sense to let your employer know.  But because of the stigma surrounding mental health issues, employees with mental illnesses tend to keep them hidden while trying their best to adequately perform their job through the struggles.

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), mental illnesses are health conditions that involve changes in thinking, emotion or behavior (or a combination of these), and are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities. “Many people who have a mental illness do not want to talk about it,” reads the APA website. “But mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a medical condition, just like heart disease or diabetes. And mental health conditions are treatable. We are continually expanding our understanding of how the human brain works, and treatments are available to help people successfully manage mental health conditions.”

When is it the right time to tell your boss about it?

According to the Mental Health Association of Pennsylvania, if you are able to come to work and be productive, you don’t have to tell your employer about your mental illness in most cases. However, if you have a mental illness that could affect or is affecting your ability to do your job, you should consider the benefits and risks of disclosure. Some of the benefits include:

  • Certain accommodations that will help you to succeed at work.
  • You won’t have the stress of hiding your illness anymore.
  • Your employer might be able to provide you with support if they are aware of your problem. Otherwise, they might misinterpret a change in your behavior as a performance issue.
  • Coming clean with your boss can allow them to help you more quickly and effectively if you experience distressing symptoms at work, whether because of your illness or the side effects of the medication you’re on.

While all of that sounds great, The Mental Health association points out some of the risks of disclosing your mental illness to your employer that include:

  • Discrimination. Discrimination against people with a mental illness is common even in enlightened companies. Your long-term career goals may be affected.
  • Your employer could become nervous if they are not familiar with mental illness and begin to treat you differently.
  • It may create uneasiness and tension between you and your employer if they are not sure how to treat you or are afraid they might do something to make that will affect your illness.
  • The information you disclose could be shared with others, including your coworkers.

As you weigh the benefits and risks of approaching your employer, think about your comfort level with your employer and coworkers. Find out of the office has accommodation or disability policies in lace that show it’s open to helping workers with mental health problems. Has anyone else in your organization disclosed a mental health problem? If so, how were they treated afterward? Also, think about how stressful it is for you to hide your mental health problem. If you are struggling with it affecting your work every single day, I would say it’s time to talk about it.

How to talk about it with your employer

Mental Health Works, a national social enterprise of the Canadian Mental Health Association, suggests you first decide how you will describe your mental illness when talking with your employer. “The decision about how specific you want or need to be is yours. If you feel it is in your best interest to say more about your mental illness, do so; otherwise, you can speak in general terms.” The organization suggests the below list of varying degrees of details.

  • General Terms: a disability, a medical condition, an illness.
  • Vague but more specific terms: a biochemical imbalance, a neurological problem, a brain disorder.
  • Specifically referring to mental illness: a mental illness, a mental health problem, a mental disorder, a psychiatric disorder, an anxiety disorder.
  • Your exact diagnosis: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, panic disorder.

The MHW suggests you provide your employer with brochures or other basic information about your mental illness. “Often people don’t know how to deal with mental illness because they do not know very much about it. Understanding the illness may make your employer more comfortable.”

Then, explain how your mental illness affects you in terms of doing your job. “If you require accommodation, tell your employer what you will need to continue to do the job. If the mental health problem doesn’t affect your ability to do the job at all, tell your employer that. You could also tell your employer about specific behaviours related to your illness, and what they can do to help you. This may be a good way to ease their concerns; you might say, “I tend to get anxious when there’s a lot of noise or people hanging around my desk, but I find that a short walk gets me re-focused.” Remind your employer of your skills and strengths in doing your job. You were hired for a reason! Also, let your employer know the best way to approach you with concerns, in particular, how it’s best for you to receive criticisms or performance management directives.

Sometimes employers misunderstand what they see and assume the employee has a bad attitude or doesn’t care about their job. In these cases, they may feel discipline, such as terminating the employee,  is necessary because they have no other explanation. However, if you disclose your mental illness and help your employer to understand that behavior is a part of your illness and let them know what you are willing to do to improve the situation, you can stop the misunderstanding from occurring next time your mental illness affects your work productivity.

The information in this series is to help those struggling with mental illness in the workplace. While this information is helpful, if you or someone you know is living with an undiagnosed mental illness, we strongly suggest seeing your practitioner to assess what you’re experiencing.

Katie Devereaux

Resume Coach and Blogger at Dental Temps Professional Services
Katie Devereaux is a writer and editor, who graduated from the University of Florida with a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism. She has written for several publications in Florida, Alaska and Illinois.
Katie Devereaux

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About Katie Devereaux

Katie Devereaux is a writer and editor, who graduated from the University of Florida with a Bachelor’s Degree in journalism. She has written for several publications in Florida, Alaska and Illinois.