Tell Boss About Mental Illness
“I’d lied many times about where I was on certain days off when really I was curled up in a ball in bed, afraid to face the world.”
By Hilary Sheinbaum
May 11, 2017
Letting your boss know you have a mental illness can be very tricky, often triggering feelings of fear and shame. But here’s why it’s important: According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, conditions like anxiety, an eating disorder, ADHD, and depression, among others, can alter the way you think and feel, and may affect your ability to relate to others and function each day.
Luckily, the Americans with Disabilities Act can protect many people with mental illnesses in the work place. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, you can ask for a reasonable accomodation (like a leave of absence, different hours, or the ability to work remotely) from your boss that will help you manage your illness and kick ass in the office.
Thomas N. Franklin, M.D., medical director for The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt, says the ideal reaction from a boss would be support and eagerness for employees to get treatment they need in order to perform their best. “Remember that every boss has had experience with mental illness, either with themselves or in their extended family,” he says. “It’s that common.”
Of course, it’s not always going to go that way. We asked real women how things worked out (or, in some cases, didn’t) when they disclosed their mental illness to their boss, and what they’ve learned from it, so you can be prepared for any situation.
“I let my boss know [after] three months in my new job that I was in intense counseling for PTSD. My boss’s response was of only grace, patience, and understanding. They’ve let me tailor my call and meeting schedule around appointments when needed and help however they can. What inspired me to tell my boss? It was affecting my work—at least, I felt it was—my sleep schedule, and my stress response. It wasn’t out of pity or anything, either. I wanted to be transparent and honest with a workplace that prides itself in being a family.”
“I am a 28-year-old with PTSD not . The first time I told an employer about this, I had recently been moved to a desk that forced me to sit with my back to the main entrance to the office, and it triggered a serious reaction. The involuntary changes in posture were causing back problems. I was having trouble sleeping, and when I did sleep, I would frequently wake up from vivid, disturbing nightmares. That employer treated my diagnosis as a nuisance, despite the fact that I had been placed at totally acceptable desks in the prior 13 months I had worked there. I was asked inappropriate questions about my diagnosis in front of coworkers, such as how I could have come by it without having been a combat veteran. I was told that my polite refusals to answer were insubordination. They refused to make any accommodations at all until I had written documentation from my doctor, which I understand is a common practice, but I disclosed around the holidays, so it took nearly a month to get that documentation. They also insisted that it had to be original documentation, written specifically to them, and mailed directly from my doctor, and the medical records I already had were dismissed out of hand as forgeries. Once my doctor produced documentation, they provided the requested accommodations—a different desk location—and immediately cut me out of all business strategy meetings, transferred me from a direct report to the CEO to a direct report to the in-house legal counsel, and within two weeks, put me on the world’s most vague performance improvement plan. Although I was technically fired from an at-will position with cause, the actual chain of causality was crystal clear.”
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“I’d been working for a small startup for almost a year when my depression and anxiety got so bad I could no longer hide it. I’d lied many times about where I was on certain days off, saying I was at the gynecologist for a ‘procedure’ because my male boss would never question it, when really I was curled up in a ball in bed, afraid to face the world. I thought so many times about coming clean and telling my boss and HR department that I was struggling or needed a mental leave of absence, but I never did. Part of me was afraid of what would happen if I did and part of me just wanted to power through it. Needless to say, my work was seriously suffering, and I was messing up on every project I touched. I tried to charm and smile my way out of my mistakes, which ended up just taking more energy I didn’t have. One morning I was on the way to work and was feeling very suicidal, so I called my doctor for an emergency appointment. Hours later, I was called into a meeting and told I was getting let go. I eventually learned that I might’ve been protected from getting fired because of the Americans with Disabilities Act had I just told my boss the truth. Either way, getting let go allowed me to take the time I needed to get better and start a new job with energy, focus, and confidence in being honest about my illness.”
Watch a hot doc explain when you should be worried about your anxiety:
“I recently self-identified to my manager that I suffer from severe depression. It was an overwhelmingly positive experience, surprisingly, and I have been asked to share my story with the larger employee audience to encourage others to be open about their non-visible disabilities. I work in corporate communications, and my boss had asked me to review a blog post about diversity inclusion he had written. When I asked him who the audience was, and what the goal was, he explained that he wanted people with non-apparent disabilities to feel encouraged and safe to self-identify. I told him that although I thought it was well written and a good first step, more needed to be done to overcome the inherent fears one might have about the stigmas associated with mental illness. He disagreed and said that maybe we should have someone with a non-apparent disability read it and give us their feedback. My response was, ‘Well I just have.’ There was definitely a short panic that followed as I heard the words pour from my mouth, but he handled it graciously and thanked me for my openness and courage. He told me I did not have to elaborate or go into any detail unless I wanted to, or when I was comfortable. Now I am working closely with him providing my input on two things: the first, how to share my personal story, and second, the larger corporate narrative for diversity and inclusion.”
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve had anxiety and bouts of depression. Working in news is an interesting career for a variety of reasons, but it comes with its challenges. When news breaks, it’s like a firetruck is blaring through, in gridlock traffic, with no chill. There is an immense amount of pressure to be the first to post the exclusive story. For a number of years, I worked with an editor who would text and email me all the time, on weekends and days off. I never wanted to discuss my mental illness with my boss, as I felt she would take it as me complaining or nagging. Meanwhile, other editors and reporters were getting laid off, so I didn’t want to appear like a weak link or be out of a job! Instead of speaking out, I accepted this was par for the course but let it fester and affect my health. Eventually, I had to leave the publication and found another gig. I’ve since learned to push back and open up a bit more when things start to get uncomfortable.”
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