To Talk or Not to Talk: Disclosing Your Mental Illness at Work
Not too long ago I had the typical office job, or those that come with a 401k and a printer you want to break with a baseball bat. This job also came with professional rivalries, office gossip, and interpersonal jealousies … you know all the office garbage that makes you hate your life decisions. While working there a lot happened directly involving my disorder. And much of that sort of affected my professional life. So I had to make a decision:
come clean with my director and disclose my illness or continue to suffer in silence.
I write about my bipolar openly now. But there was a point when I treasured my privacy above anything else. My mental issues were a personal matter that no one needed to know about. So disclosing my diagnosis with my boss became a matter of profound debate.
How bipolar can affect your professional life
Discretion and prudency – I came to know as the two keywords to most successful corporate jobs. Being a pure Mexican-American at heart, I’ve come to think that in the United States we tend to have an odd relationship with our jobs. We distinctly separate our professional from our personal lives. At least that was how I experienced it when I moved to DC to work at my 401k-with-a-dreadful-printer-office-job. I used to describe my colleagues as being both as polite and fake as flight attendants. So naturally, I would not even dare to speak of my illness with people I could not make a connection with. That is why discretion and prudency became my mantra.
But things began to get difficult.
My moods oscillated so rapidly and extremely. My energy and motivation were out of control one week. Then the next week I would stumble onto my crippling depressions. My therapy sessions began to conflict with my work schedule. And at one point I was involuntarily hospitalized well into the workweek. Though my work performance remained stellar (e.g., never missing a deadline, always giving more than 100%, starting new initiatives), I feared that if I didn’t communicate my problems with my director, I could be jeopardizing my image.
To me it became important to sit down and lay the cards on the table. Okay, Jackie, how is your bipolar (potentially) affecting your job? Though my answers were slightly different, these are some ways I conclude one’s illness can affect us:
Limit our dependability due to our instability. If one week we are all smiles and vigorously starting new projects and the next week we are quiet and have a hard time keeping up, then how can we be set an image our colleagues can trust?
Impact our punctuality and schedules. Sometimes we can’t sleep and end up falling asleep in the wee hours of the morning so we arrive late to work. Other times we need to ask permission to leave early so that we can catch our overbooked therapist on time.
Overwhelm us with emotions we have a difficult time controlling. It’s hard to keep a straight face when we are triggered with an emotion. I can’t count the number of times I cried in my boss’ office due to my frustrations with other colleagues.
I suggest that you sit down and think hard on how your disorder may be impeding your full work potential. And if you honestly think that it is, then pay close attention the rest of this post in which I will share my how-to-disclose-you-are-nutty-at-work-four-step-formula.
Step 1: Gauging your work environment.
Let’s say you were frank with yourself and concluded that your mental state is related to some of your professional challenges, so now what? Well, you obviously need to start considering if it is worth coming clean with your job. To do this you first need to evaluate your environment to see if it is conducive to accommodations and if the culture is up to par with the medical literature.
Use the following questions to get you started in gauging your work environment.
What policies does my job have regarding disabilities and accommodations? (Check with your HR department)
What are my expectations as an employee and how is my illness limiting me in fulfilling them?
Can my illness be managed with reasonable accommodations?
Are there others like me who have disclosed? If so, what are their experiences?
Based on my experience with my superior(s) and colleague(s), how could they react?
Who can I trust and whom should I keep at a professional distance?
How will I/my employer benefit from me speaking up?
What is the protocol for this sort of thing?
Step 2: Identifying the pros and cons of speaking up.
When evaluating a decision, it’s not a shabby idea to also create a list of pros and cons to more objectively weigh in favor or against the decision. So what are some of the pros and cons of disclosing mental illness at work?
Step 3: Figuring out a strategy
So you checked steps one and two, congratulations, you are still in the game! Now it’s time to devise a plan, call it your “Coming out of the Crazy Closet Part 1” plan. But wait, Jackie, why do I need a plan? Can’t I just go up to my boss and have a conversation with them?
Erm, yes. But you have to be smart about the conversation. How do you want to approach them? When is the best time? What are you hoping to gain from the conversation? All of this requires a strategy and this is why you need a plan.
First things first, you must establish your WHY.
Why are you disclosing your illness? (Make sure you make it about them, not you.)
Examples of why’s:
I am normally a very private person but because I care about my professional performance, I thought I should share that I am currently living with XYZ mental illness.
During the past several weeks I have been experiencing symptoms of an oncoming depression. During these periods I become very vulnerable and a little slower than usual. I wanted to you to know because I don’t want you to think I am unmotivated by my job. So if you notice odd behavior, please be aware.
This last week I have been arriving late. Though it does not impact my productivity I am afraid it could affect my image. This week I have been experiencing more anxiety than usual, which normally hits me in the morning. I wanted you to know that I have been arriving late because I use the mornings to calm down before I get to the office.
Next, establish your WHO.
Who do you want to talk to?
Your immediate supervisor?
I suggest you first talk with someone you trust. Start small. Don’t tell the whole office at once. You need to test the waters slowly to see who can be trusted and who cannot.
Then develop your WHEN.
When you approach your supervisor (or your colleagues) is as important as what you are going to say. Disclosing an illness in a professional environment is usually a delicate topic that requires time and focus. It doesn’t matter how polished your speech is, if you decide to pull your supervisor aside in the middle of a tight deadline, consider yourself in hot water.
It’s also not a good idea to announce your mental state during a team meeting simply because the topic of mental illness was somehow raised.
You can’t drop a bomb on people without giving them time to process.
So do this instead:
Send an email to your supervisor asking to meet one-on-one to discuss a sensitive-personal matter
Agree on a mutual and convenient time to meet for about 30 minutes
Suggest meeting in a private place (office), going for a walk, or at a quiet lunch spot
If you want to be taken seriously, then take your conversation seriously.
Step 4: Knowing your rights
There is a little something called legislation … or protections sanctioned by the United States government to ensure equal opportunities for all Americans despite their race, gender, or physical/mental condition(s) (in theory, of course). In the case of mental illness, it is important to be versed in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which states that:
The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, State and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.
But, Jackie, how is mental illness even a disability? Ah … great question! According to the ADA,
An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.
So if you are diagnosed with a mental illness, you most likely have a disability considering that the ADA uses very similar criteria to the one medical professionals use when diagnosing a patient (e.g., “the impairment that substantially limits …”). I would suggest, however, doing some further digging to see if your condition is deemed a disability and if you need to take further steps to be considered disabled by the law.
I am no lawyer. And the nuances of any law are usually complicated so read up. You can start here.
The ADA protects Americans in many life situations including employment. That means that employers are by law prohibited to discriminate you on the basis of your illness. In other words, they can’t fire or deny you employment because you are bipolar without first providing you with “reasonable accommodations.”
The word “reasonable” here is vital because each employer and situation can define this differently.
Depending on the work-culture some employers find the following accommodations as reasonable:
Flexible work schedules
Remote work (or work from home days)
Modified work spaces
Modified communication vehicles
To find out more, read through your employee manual or ask your HR person.
In closing …
My how-to-disclose-you-are-nutty-at-work-four-step-formula is not bullet proof. I have made a lot of professional mistakes in relation to my mental illness. Throughout my years in the workforce I have trusted the wrong people and have been naïve to an idealistic sense that we should all love and accept each other. I have also kept quiet thinking I have to be Super Career Woman at all times. Both tactics are unhealthy in great degrees.
This is why I have learned to be selective and careful … after all, this is why stigma is a very real problem.
Be strategic and tactful if you wish to disclose your illness. And if you can’t trust your work to not discriminate you, then it may be time to start considering switching jobs.
You don't have to suffer in silence.
The Ins and Outs of OWN IT: A Blog on How to Show Bipolar Who's the Boss
A blog for people with mental illness written by an unstable, unpredictable, and uninhibited woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder
Covers all topics including relationships, coping mechanisms, entertainment, and everyday resources
Updated and shared irregularly (like my moods), news and updates available on Instagram @jackie_loweree, and if you don't have an Instagram, no problem, just check my site - all posts will be here
Disclaimer: OWN IT is a first-hand account of bipolar disorder designed to orient those diagnosed with mental illness. It by no means intends to offer medical advice. If you are diagnosed with an illness, or think you may suffer from one, please seek professional help. Otherwise, take my words lightly and have fun reading!