Depression & Mental Health Blog
July 28, 2017
CJ Peters
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How to Speak to Your Employer about Mental Illness

In a perfect world, everyone would understand mental illness and be encouraging towards you. However, in real life, most people might not know much about mental illnesses. Disclosing your mental disorder to others is not an easy task. However, bringing this up to your family members, friends, and even coworkers can prove beneficial to both parties.

In a job, you have to assess the advantages and disadvantages of disclosing your mental illness. Considering if your condition affects your everyday work performance can help you determine if it is worth talking about it.

Here are some tips and steps to learn how to speak to your employer about your mental illness and how to be prepared for this situation.

Step-by-Step Guide to Talking about Your Mental Health Disorder

If you have decided to disclose your mental illness with your employer, for whatever the reason, you first have to do some research on what you should bring or expect from the company you work with. Moreover, while this is uncertain, assess how your company has handled disabilities in the past. Whenever you have the talk with your employer, make sure you provide them with valid points, examples, and insight, to make sure they fully understand the situation.

1. Describe your illness

The decision about how specific you’d like to be when explaining your illness is entirely yours. Establish boundaries from the very beginning of the conversation; you do not need to be pressured to disclose things you do not want to. Describe your illness as best as you can. Provide your employer with examples or comparisons between someone with a mental health disorder and one without.

2. Provide educational assets

There are thousands of brochures, pamphlets, and other resources with information about mental illness. Bring some with you that reference mental illness in general, and then provide them with others specific to your condition. It is likely they will have questions after your talk, so providing your employer with additional information will allow them to assess better and digest the situation.

3. Explain how it may affect your job

If your mental illness affects or could affect your job in any way, make sure you let your employer know. Or, if you require accommodations, make sure you let them know what you need in order to do your job. If, on the other hand, your mental health illness does not affect your work at all, disclose this as well. Also, if any situation in your work environment could trigger a reaction, make sure you let them know so they can help you.

4. Remind them of your skills and abilities

Many people do not disclose their mental illness for fear of being terminated. If you choose to disclose your condition, showcase your expertise and skills, which is the main reason they hired you in the first place. Let them know that despite your illness, you are capable of doing many things and can, in fact, excel in your position.

5. Let them know how they can support you

An employer may ask for ways they can help. Let them know how they can encourage and support you. Explain to them the best ways to reach you with concerns. At this point, it is important to think of your employer as an ally. They are willing to help you as much as they can.

What Should You Say?

Boston University prepared a short script to help those who want to disclose their mental health condition with their employers. You can change this script to adapt to your circumstances. You may want to say something like:

“I have (preferred term for your mental health condition) that I am recovering from. Currently, I can/have (the skills required) to do (the primary duties) of the job, but sometimes (functional limitations) interfere with my ability to (duties you may have trouble performing). It helps if I have (name the specific accommodations you need). I work best when (other accommodations).”

You could also add:

“Sometimes you might notice (symptoms or behaviors associated). When you see that, you can (name the action they can do). Here is the number of my (employment specialist, doctor, therapist, previous employer, etc.) for any information you might need about my ability to handle the job.”

Responding to Feedback

Most organizations provide feedback on employees’ performance levels. This feedback is typically positive. However, sometimes your company may give you some harsh or simply constructive criticism. You may instinctively think it has something to do with your condition. Don’t. Negative feedback can be a valuable opportunity to learn how to do certain tasks better and improve your skill set.

1. Be open to listening

Pay attention to the bigger picture. Don’t focus on the tone or the nitty gritty. Listen carefully to what your employer has to say. Think of ways you can translate that negative feedback into something productive and positive.

2. Acknowledge the feedback

Recognize the comments, and let them know that you understand and that you are entirely responsible for your actions. Make sure you voice your acknowledgment and reassure your employer that you will work to improve your performance.

3. Offer your perspective

Sometimes your company’s feedback does not align with what you feel or did. If by any reason you disagree with their point of view, let them know. You could say “While you believe I did ___, I feel I did __.” Mention at least two things you know you did well, acknowledge what you can improve, and reassure them how you will prevent it from happening again.

4. Ask for concrete details on how to improve

After you have listened to their feedback, make sure you ask how you can improve. Staying open to constructive criticism is vital for evolving, both personally and professionally. Take notes and let them know how you plan on executing them.

FAQ about Talking to Your Employer about Mental Illness

Q: Do I have to disclose my mental illness?

A: If you can do your job without accommodations, in most cases you do not have to disclose it. However, if your mental health problem starts affecting or could affect your job in the future, then you will need to consider disclosing your condition.

Q: Are there any circumstances where I must disclose my mental illness?

A: In certain cases, you may be required to disclose your mental health condition. For example:

  • our employee benefit plan requires you to submit claims through your employer
  • Your company requires a medical certificate if you miss more than a specified number of days of work
  • You are requesting accommodation

Q: What are the risks of disclosing my condition?

A: Due to the stigma placed with mental health illness, there are some risks in disclosing your condition. For example:

  • Discrimination
  • Your employer may not be familiar with your condition. They may act nervous around you or treat you differently
  • The information you disclose may be shared with your colleagues

Q: Is there information I need to gather before I reveal my condition?

A: Since every company is different, it is a good idea to gather as much information as possible related to disability policies within the enterprise. For example:

  • The company’s accommodation policy
  • The employer’s privacy policy
  • The company’s health care plan

You should also gather information related to your mental illness. For example:

  • Brochures about mental health awareness
  • Pamphlets that explain your mental condition
  • References they could contact for more information

Q: Is there a law that talks about disclosing your mental illness to an employer?

A: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) forbids discrimination based on disability. The ADA also requires covered employers to offer reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities and enforces accessibility requirements on public accommodation.