Conversations about mental health are increasingly commonplace, but we don’t necessarily have a shared understanding of how to broach the topic at work... which means people don’t always get the support and help they need. Here’s a beginner’s guide to talking about your mental health at work.
Should I disclose my mental health condition to my boss?
While increased openness about mental health is a good thing, the reality is that there can be real risk to disclosing a mental health condition at work. Too many people who confide in a boss about depression or anxiety end up getting wrongly labeled as too fragile to handle a particular project, denied a promotion that they were perfectly qualified for, or discriminated against in other ways.
Because of that, the safest course of action is to disclose a mental health condition—or any health condition, for that matter—at work only when you want to ask for a specific accommodation to help you manage it. In part that’s because there’s not really anything (ethical) that your boss can do with the information otherwise. Plus, she might assume that you’re looking for her to help in some way... and then go looking for ways to help that aren’t aligned with what you’d actually want (like taking you off a project that she deems too stressful).
That doesn’t mean that disclosing mental health struggles will always go badly, of course! Sometimes it doesn’t, and if you have a manager with a strong track record of handling mental health well, you might make a different decision.
What if I just want time off work for therapy?
Go ahead and ask for it! The easiest way to approach it is the way you would with any other standing medical appointment. You don’t need to explain that it’s for therapy, just like you wouldn’t need to explain that a recurring medical appointment was for allergy shots or chemotherapy. You can just say something like, “I am going to have a recurring weekly medical appointment for the foreseeable future. I’ll need to leave about an hour early every Thursday for it. Could I come in early on those days so my hours balance out?”
For a lot of bosses, that’s all it will take. But if your boss probes for more details—which could happen if she’s concerned about whether everything’s OK or just because she’s nosy—you don’t need to share more if you’d rather not. It’s enough to just respond with something like, “It’s nothing to worry about, just something I need to get taken care of.”
What if I need a different kind of accommodation?
Just like you might need workplace accommodations for a physical condition (like a stool if you can’t stand for long periods or screen reading software if you’re visually impaired), you might also need accommodations for a mental health condition.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law that requires employers to work with employees with both mental and physical disabilities to provide “reasonable accommodations” to help you perform the essential functions of your position—which could be anything from an altered work schedule, to specific steps to reduce distractions and stress, to time off for treatment, to even changing the way you’re given feedback. If you’re not sure what would help you, the Job Accommodation Network is an excellent source of specific accommodations to consider for a wide range of conditions.
You can kick off that process by letting your HR department know that you’re making an official request for accommodation under the ADA. They might ask you to put the request in writing or have your doctor complete paperwork, but neither you nor your doctor should need to disclose your specific diagnosis in doing this. From there, your employer is required to enter into an interactive process with you to determine what accommodations will work. They’re allowed to suggest a different accommodation than the one you requested, but if their suggestion won’t work you’re allowed to explain that and ask for something else.
One big caveat: While some state laws provide additional protections, the ADA itself only covers employers with 15 or more employees and your condition must “substantially limit one or more major life activities,” which include interacting with others, communicating, eating, sleeping, caring for yourself, and regulating your thoughts. The law doesn’t list specific conditions it covers, but depression, PTSD, anxiety, and other common mental health disorders frequently do meet its bar.
What if I’m getting into trouble for my work performance and the reason is related to mental health?
If your mental health is causing you to fall behind on projects or struggle to produce the quality of work your boss expects, in some cases it can make sense to let your boss know what’s happening. Crucially, though, this should be accompanied by an explanation that you’re actively working on it—that you’re seeking help in therapy, from medication, or so forth. You don’t need to—and shouldn’t—go into the details, but an acknowledgement that (a) you see it’s a problem, and (b) you’re working on solutions can reassure your boss that you’re on it. Having that conversation can get you more of a grace period to work on the issues than you might get if your boss didn’t have that context.
Caveat: There’s a risk to doing this, particularly if your boss isn’t terribly empathetic about mental health issues. But there’s a risk to not doing it too, particularly if you’re not going to be able to solve the work problems overnight.
What if I think I’m being discriminated against because of my mental health?
The ADA also makes it illegal for your employer to discriminate against you because you have a mental health condition. That means they can’t fire you, change the types of projects they give you, or otherwise deny you professional advancement simply because of your mental health. They can only take action based on your mental health if you’re truly unable to perform those essential functions, even with reasonable accommodations.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that illegal discrimination doesn’t happen. If you think you’re being discriminated against, you can file an official complaint with your company’s HR department (make sure you put it in writing and use the words “official complaint of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act”). You can also consult with a lawyer about your options. That doesn’t mean going straight to a lawsuit; while sometimes that ends up being necessary, often a lawyer will be able to negotiate with your company on your behalf, or even guide you on how to navigate the situation yourself from behind the scenes.