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Should You Tell Your Boss About a Mental Illness?

Many people struggle with the question of whether or not to tell their bosses about their mood disorders at work. Washington Post columnist Amy Joyce wrote an excellent article on this a few years ago. I have included the first few paragraphs below, but urge you to read the rest of her article, as it gives no straight answers but explores that terrain with great depth.

If you have depression or some other mental illness, what do you do about work? Hope no one notices? Disclose your illness early on and trust that your boss will understand?

Should You Tell is a complicated question.

There is no right answer, and there are some risks to consider.

I discovered this years ago after watching a movie at home with two friends. One of them looked up, scared. She hesitated. And then she let it out: “Do you hear them? The helicopters. They’re coming for me, guys.”

14 Comments to
Should You Tell Your Boss About a Mental Illness?

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  1. Hi Therese,
    My experience in a corporate office is no, absolutely not, never tell anyone and fake your way through it from 9-5 and then dissociate and decompensate when you get home.
    However, I am now moving in the the mental health field. I am studying and intend to pursue a career either in the outreach programme or as a peer support worker (where essential criteria is a lived experience of a mental illness). How ironic is that?

  2. I wouldn’t be in any hurry to open my mouth.

    Coffee is on.

  3. I have been out of the workforce as a Engineering Project/Program manager for over 15 years because of “sever depression” & am considering going back to work. I do NOT intend to tell my potential employers that I suffed from depression. My experience with people who are not depressed is that they do not understand the illness & they are afraid of it. Sorry to say today’s professional engineering & similiar type of people do not want to deal with people with mental illness.
    I came out of depression several months ago & do not feel that I will suffer from that illness again.

  4. I was a professor at a state university and had to go on a medical leave of absence due to the depression from bipolar. I was out for the rest of the semester and the following semester. When I returned, my Dean and the HR administrator required me to sign a statement that I would not disclose my diagnosis or symptoms to any faculty, staff or students. If I didn’t sign it I would not be allowed to return to work.

    An accommodation plan was designed with three things: no early morning classes (due to sleeping problems), no out of town classes as when depressed I had trouble driving in traffic, and at least one online class a semester. The first semester I was half-time and did not teach. The second semester I was given an 8am class that met 3 times a week, a course in the cities, and no online class. I lasted about 3 weeks before I had to return to a medical leave.

    Before my first leave, I had disclosed my condition to the chair of my department and to another of my coworkers. I regularly saw my psychiatrist and psychologist and took all prescribed medicine. Then I disclosed that I was having ECT and some of my symptoms to a different coworker. She reported it to my Dean. The Dean and the head of HR wrote a letter to my psychiatrist although I had not told anyone who my psychiatrist was. I believe they checked my records of medical treatment in order to get that information. My psychiatrist called me in and said that she wanted me out of that environment for awhile. That was the beginning of my first leave of absence.

    During my second leave of absence I was informed that I had to go up for tenure (if you don’t receive tenure you have to leave the university). I talked to my Chair and she said that since I had been absent so much the department would not vote for tenure for me and without department support tenure is never given. Deciding the outcome of a tenure review prior to being given documentation goes against the faculty contract but it was going to happen so I resigned. Rather than accepting my resignation, the university put me on permanent disability.

    Would I tell my next employer? I would have to in order to explain my long period of unemployment. I also doubt that I would be able to get good references. Due to that, my leaves of absence, and the high competition for university faculty jobs I don’t ever expect to be able to return to college teaching.

    Also, ADA wouldn’t have helped me. When I looked into it there were two problems. One is that you have to have a financial loss (such as if I had refused to sign the statement and couldn’t return to work) and I was so depressed I didn’t look into early enough. I believe you have about 180 days to file.

    • hello,
      in a salvia test THC showed up ????? WHAT ????? I don’t smoke pot, injest it or do any other street drugs. don’t smoke, drink or do ant recreational drugs. How does a positive THC show up?????

    • I am guessing that the University defines diversity and unity on its own terms.

  5. I worked in the social services field for about 10 years or more and in my experience, it is not helpful to tell current or potential employers/bosses about your mental illness. No one treated me poorly and I didn’t lose my job but I was treated very differently than I had been before my employer found out about my illness. I ended up going on leave due my Bipolar II symptoms (deep depression, insomnia and severe anxiety)and when my leave was over, I was let go. I was told that due to my good standing with the company, that when I was feeling well again, I would be eligible for rehire so I did submit a resume and application when I felt well enough to return. I was not rehired however, because my employer felt that I could not handle the stress of the job and possible closure of job site. I live by the saying that honesty is the best policy and I still believe that but in this case, my honesty back fired on me.

  6. I would encourage those with depression to get the book “Working in the Dark: Keeping Your Job While Dealing With Depression” by Fawn Fitter & Beth Gulas. You can get it for around $13. I’min now way associated with the authors or publisher of the book. I bought this book when I began having difficulties at work due to my depression and I’m glad I did. It covers everything from how to disclose your illness to your boss/co-workers (if you decide to), your rights under the American Disabilities Act and Family Medical Leave Act, resources within your department/company that can advocate for you and much, much more. You’re more protected than you know – and you *should* know – even if your depression is under control this is still a valuable book to have in case the darkness returns. Did you know that if you decide to disclose personal medical information to your boss that he/she cannot use that information against you in any way including talking to colleagues, other managers, supervisors, or co-workers? Did you know that you cannot be fired for disclosing your mental illness? Did you know that if you need to take time off due to your condition that when you return to work you must be placed back in your previous position with your same pay? Don’t get me wrong – and as the book states – you certainly can be fired for poor job performance – but you have tools at your disposal to help you and your supervisor keep the communication open and clear. This book saved my job – and my sanity. If you’re struggling at work because of depression – GET THIS BOOK.

    • Hello,

      Thank you for this information. I am a recent graduate working at a state company and was considering telling my coordinator about my depression and other mental conditions. Only because my conditions are getting worse and I’m scared it will destroy my job performance. I will indeed check out the book and mull on it for a few more days.

  7. I chose not to tell my last employer- almost 8 years of VERY good work and service- no missing days except vacation or maternity leave. When my mind “broke” no one could understand- they had no idea the stress I was under psychologically just to keep it together everyday. I was ‘relieved’ of my position as soon as the 12 weeks medical leave was up and I couldn’t return to full-time; full functioning. I am about to engage with Vocational Rehabilitation to try to get a new job ( I have been out on disability 4 and half yrs). I question my ability to work under stress, yet a less stressful job would put me working “below my potential” ( I graduated with honours from college). There is still no answer out there- I want to become part of the working world again, but my stability even with just normal day-to-day stress hasn’t been there! I really hope we as a community can get the word out that mental illness is the same as physical- sometimes you need to take time to heal.

  8. I have never found it beneficial to disclose that I have a mental illness. As I believe the theory that problems with serotonin and norepinephrine cause depression, I say that I have a chemical imbalance that requires medication, if the subject comes up.

  9. I disclosed my anger/anxiety issues with my previous employer. Was on Rx to help. After 8 yrs of a perfect record of employment I was fired from my position for reasons still unknown. According to my former co workers they were all told the next day that I was a “ticking time bomb that could go off at any minute.” I was a “liability to have in the office.” They were also asked if any of them were afraid of me. WHAT?? Not 1 time in 8 yrs did I display any reason for any of these comments and certainly nothing that would require people to be scared of me. I was humiliated. I went throught the EEOC and the end result was unfortunately they didnt have 15 people on staff (still suspect, at my time of dismissal they had 16). What do I do now? They get off smelling like roses and Im left with a crappier job, making half what I was making and still humiliated. I dont want money from these people I want someone to tell them NO!! You cant do that!! Now, nobody at my new job knows I take meds. Nobody knows I have a problem. Dont say a word. It’s your business so keep it to yourself.

  10. A key point to remember is that ADA protection requires disclosure if you are seeking leave or need accommodations. When I needed to use my FMLA leave in order to be hospitalized, I had my brother with me during the discussion with my employer. I also had documentation from my physician. Having a family member or concerned individual there during the discussion prevents “selective memory” on your employer’s part. Plus, I was too sick to articulate my needs.

  11. Hard question, my motto is full disclosure. Hello, my name is Mike I’m a manic depressive with psychotic features, its part of me so deal with it. I have a friend who works HR, and she says hide everything. It goes against my character to worry about what other might think of me because of this madness. I would rather they know up front, and then after a few months it will be no big deal. Otherwise informing your employer later may result in them securitizing your past few months looking for fault. Your sells pitch, I am rather entertaining at times and you will no get bored being around me. I hope this helps someone, I know that being spurned hurts deeply. Please wish me luck in my new career search.



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