how to talk to your boss about mental health issues

If you’re struggling with mental health issues, you have to deal not just with the issue itself, but also with the anxiety of trying to figure out how much, if anything, you can tell your boss about what you’re dealing with. That’s frustrating because in some cases, you might want to give your manager context for why you’re not fully 100% at work, just like you might if you weren’t all full speed while getting over the flu. Or you might need to ask for medical accommodations, such as a schedule change, a quieter work space, or time to attend therapy appointments.

While most people won’t hesitate to call in sick or tell their boss they need time off for medical treatment, many people are far more reluctant to do that when the issue is related to mental health.

I talked to Polly Drew, a psychotherapist specializing in relationship, marital and family issues, about this. She says to start by considering what you know of your manager: “Consider the variables,” she says. “Is your supervisor someone [who] you can talk to and if so, does he or she demonstrate any kind of a bias on a day-to-day basis? If you are a highly productive worker with an excellent relationship with your supervisor, and you trust him or her, it’s okay to explain a personal difficulty.”

In talking with your manager, keep these tips in mind.

Be very clear about specifically what you’re asking for. For example, Drew suggests you might say something like, “As you know, my sister died. I am wondering if I could work through lunch and take off at 3 p.m. to go see my therapist?” Or, “I’ve been struggling with sleep and working with my doctor. I’m wondering if I could start 30 minutes later for the next six weeks while I get this under control?”

Be measured in what you say. “Keep in mind that your employer is not your mom, dad or therapist,” says Drew. “Be vague with all the details and avoid being overly descriptive with how badly you feel. You also want to avoid giving diagnostic information. Firstly, you may have it wrong. Secondly, it may be too much information and you may be left with a ‘vulnerability hang over,’ feeling as if you disclosed too much. You are entitled to your privacy.”

Be mindful of the risks, but not paralyzed by caution. There can be risks to disclosing a mental health issue at work, and people often worry that they’ll be treated differently or even put their jobs in peril. But it can help to pay attention to what you know about how your manager and your company operate. “Some supervisors handle difficulties that their employees are having with ease,” notes Drew. “Others do not. Pay attention to what you’ve observed to help you determine if your boss will handle your difficulty with care. Remember that keeping excellent boundaries at work will help in the long run.”

Get a professional involved in your care. If your condition is affecting you at work, a licensed mental health professional can help you figure out how to navigate the situation and decide what, if anything, to tell your boss.

If your company offers resources, use them! If your company has an employee assistance program (EAP), Drew recommends accessing it as soon as possible. “You don’t need permission from a supervisor or human resources” to use an EAP, she says. “They are there to help you, and best of all, it’s confidential and free.”

Know your legal rights. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the federal law that protects employees with physical or mental impairments, may offer you some protection at work. It’s important to keep in mind that the ADA doesn’t contain a list of specific conditions that constitute disabilities. Rather, the law has a general definition of disability; it covers “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.” What that means, in practice, is that whether or not you’re covered will depend on your specific symptoms.

However, if you are covered, the law says that you are entitled to reasonable accommodations from your employer if such accommodations will help you to maintain your job performance. However, you still must be able to perform the essential functions of your job, with or without accommodations.

Use helpful resources. These resources can be good starting points for finding mental health care:

National Institute of Mental Health
Suicide Prevention Lifeline

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 86 comments… read them below }

  1. Mythea*

    This is so important. I have seen so many people face stigma, or think they will, and avoid asking for support that their job is required and willing to give. I hope more people learn to step up and speak where they safely can and build a stronger professional support for mental health in the office. Not everyone can speak up right now, and the more people who do and get good results, the more the stigma will quit impacting people professionally.

  2. ceiswyn*

    That’s a very useful starting point, but it can be surprisingly difficult to put into practice: one of the things that many mental health conditions saps is the executive function required for complex decision-making, so it may be difficult for someone suffering mental health issues to pinpoint specific things that can help.

    In my experience, one of the difficulties with disclosing a mental health issue is dealing with managerial behaviours that are well-intended but… unhelpful. My manager used to turn up at my desk any time I was a little late in to work and ask me ‘How are you?’ with a meaningful eyebrow-wiggle. Given that my desk is in the middle of an open-plan office, I found dealing with those inquiries stressful, but the idea of asking him to stop was even worse. Are there any existing resources for managers that someone struggling with a mental health flare-up could maybe point them at?

  3. Christy*

    I always just say “a doctor’s appointment” when I have to go to therapy during work hours. My psychologist is a PhD so it’s not even untrue. I’ve never gotten any questions on it.

    1. fposte*

      To me that’s not even a cover-up; it’s just language I use any time I go to the medical facility. I didn’t even think about it until this thread, but it wouldn’t occur to me to differentiate PT/nurse practitioner/dietician from doctor. They’re just all doctor’s appointments when I’m talking at work.

      1. OhNo*

        Same. The only time I specify (which happens rarely) is when I know that it might have an adverse affect on me when I get to work. But even then I fudge the truth a little – my coworkers and boss are all aware that I have issues with needles, so “I had to get my blood drawn” has become my go-to substitution for “I had a rough appointment this morning and might be a little off for the rest of the day”.

    2. K.*

      That’s what I do too. I don’t make any distinction between my annual physicals, my weekly therapist appointment, my semi-annual dental checkup, etc. They’re all doctor’s appointments, so that’s what I say. My therapist has evening hours so it doesn’t always affect work, but on the days it does I just say I have a doctor’s appointment. Or, if I’ve scheduled a lunchtime appointment, I block off the time as busy on my calendar and say I have to “duck out at lunchtime” or something along those lines.

      I’m not ashamed of being in therapy at all – my family and close friends all know (and coincidentally, the majority of my friends are in therapy as well). I view my physical and mental health as a private matter though, so I don’t feel compelled to broadcast it.

  4. dani80*

    The additional difficulty is talking to your employer about your partener/spouse’s mental illness. I know from experience that it is a hard conversation to have. It can take up a lot of your time getting them to appointments, phone calls during the middle of the day, etc. I’ve had to let my boss know what is going on in my family when I would rather keep it quiet. I was lucky that my boss was understanding and pointed me to resources.

  5. Mike*

    I am fortunate that my manager was formerly a peer so we built up a good relationship and that I get to work from home at least once per week. So when I started therapy I was able to just do it on my telecommute day and then later when I needed to have a discussion about work/life balance I knew I could talk to him.

    One thing that helped me get over my own stigma about therapy was being willing to talk about it and not hide it. And during discussions with my manager about performance, behavior, etc we get to openly compare and contrast how I am now verse before therapy.

    Even though I don’t go to therapy every week anymore I still block out that time on my work calendar so that I don’t have to worry about it if the therapy appointment changes schedule (like recently when the therapist went on vacation and we shifted a week). The calendar just says “Appointment”.

  6. Anon because STIGMA*

    Alison, did you read my mind? Because I was literally going to email you THIS MORNING and ask for a post about this, since it’s something I’m struggling with. Thank you! You are the best!

    I went to see the on-site therapist last week for the first time, and it’s clear that I need to have weekly sessions with her for the foreseeable future. I was going to have one today, but then my boss scheduled a conference call at that time. She works at another office. We have my performance evaluation this week. Would that be a good time to ask for permission to attend therapy? I could really use some good language to help me keep my conditions private, while emphasizing that I really do need help ASAP.

    1. fposte*

      In general, it’s not a request for permission but a statement of fact–“I’m going to have doctor’s appointments on Wednesday afternoons for a while; I’ll just work longer days on Thursday to make up [or take sick time, or whatever the time-off approach is].” You also don’t need–or want–to emphasize how urgent the need for help is. It’s probably too late for today, but in general you can say “Sorry, can’t make that time for the call; I have a doctor’s appointment.”

      I wouldn’t make this a part of the performance evaluation–it turns it into a bigger deal than it needs to be. Just shoot her a note with the info about your schedule. The exception is if you’re seeking accommodation on the actual job, not just planning for medical care; that could be an appropriate time for such a discussion.

      1. Karo*

        Also, adding a (private, non-descriptive) appointment to your calendar should help. Just put “Busy” every Monday afternoon at whatever time for the foreseeable future. You shouldn’t have to worry about surprise calls then.

    2. AnotherHRPro*

      The fact that your company has an on-site therapist probably means that your company supports and value mental well-being. You do not want to bring up time off for regular appointments during your performance evaluation. That isn’t the time or place for it. It is reasonable to let your manager know, at a separate time, that you need time off for a reoccurring appointment and to see if there are concerns about the time/day you are scheduling the appointments.

  7. Gandalf the Nude*

    I so wish this had been available this morning before I talked to my boss about the Pulse shooting. Just having it in mind might have helped me avoid the oversharing I did and the subsequent vulnerability hangover (perfect term for it, by the way).

    1. fposte*

      Yeah, I hadn’t heard that term before and it immediately conjured up a familiar feeling :-/.

    2. Eaten by a grue*

      It definitely struck a chord for me as well. I struggle with oversharing as I approach a manic period, sometimes to the point where I overcompensate. I’m not sure which is more likely to give me away, unfortunately!

    3. Sarahnova*

      Oh boy I have a vulnerability hangover today. Told my manager yesterday about a personal trauma that I had not intended to bring up.

  8. Heather*

    This is so important! I’ve had general anxiety disorder and depression for 8 years. The number one misconception I come across is that it’s a choice and if I just think positive thoughts/meditate/exercise/eat healthy/journal/pray/get over it, etc. my symptoms will disappear. WRONG. It affects me every. single. day. And the stress of staying silent for fear of judgement or having my condition minimized makes it worse. For e.g. it grates my nerves when people say they have panic attacks when they lose their keys. Um, no.
    That said, I think it’s best to keep your condition, and your treatment plan to yourself. In a perfect world, we could say, “I need to see my therapist ASAP, brb.” However, people are stupid, even if they mean well. So therapy appointments are “doctor’s appointments,” mental health days are “sick days,” and medication (if anyone sees me take it) is “vitamins.” If anyone asks, say you’re being treated for an ongoing health issue and leave it at that. And if they have zero emotional intelligence and push for details, yell “VAGINA!” and walk away. Or don’t. Yeah, don’t lol.

    1. EA*

      Unfortunately I agree. I have GAD, but it is managed pretty well, so know one knows unless I tell them.

      I did disclose once, to bad results. The supervisor didn’t think anxiety was a real thing “Oh you get nervous, me too” then when I pushed back “I worry, does this mean I have this too (said sarcastically)” and my personal favorite of “everyone worries”.

      So yea, never again.

      1. Not me*

        Yeah. I made the mistake of telling my boss that I was out for insomnia and stress. I’ve been demoted from a senior role doing complex things to basically babysitting a server and taking care of trouble tickets. There have been a lot of things that have happened in the months since I’ve told him that make it clear that I’m not trusted to do good work and now I’m under a microscope. I’ve gone from loving my job to hating it and praying for an escape hatch to present itself.

        Never, ever again will I be honest about that. And it’s a shame, but there is still a very real stigma.

        1. Collingwood21*

          This, this this.
          I made the mistake of owning up to my depression when it was becoming severe and was obviously having an impact on my work. The result is that I was moved out of my team’s office to work separately because this would “make me happier”. Months on, I am still here. I am left out of conversations and decisions, not given projects and am definitely treated differently to the rest of my team. I asked for team meetings as a way of getting back into things and they haven’t happened (or at least not with me included). The stress of this situation has meant that I have acquired a second mental illness – anxiety (and the panic attacks that accompany it).

          When I finally escape this, I will never ever tell a manager again. The years of suffering in silence were less stressful than this.

    2. KR*

      A few months ago I told my boss that sometimes I just wake up feeling really off and can’t make it into work for a few hours because it’s hard to get out the door. I didn’t explicitly say it was mental illness related, but he was very understanding and told me to do whatever I needed to do. I feel a lot better now that I’ve told him because before it looked bad just saying “Oh I slept in/cat threw up/roommate needed some help/no clean clothes/something came up”.

    3. LBK*

      I’m going to start screaming “VAGINA” as a way to get out of conversations, although as a man I’m not certain it will be as effective.

  9. Don't say my name!*

    However, if you are covered, the law says that you are entitled to reasonable accommodations from your employer if such accommodations will help you to maintain your job performance. However, you still must be able to perform the essential functions of your job, with or without accommodations.

    This is what scares me most. What if I can’t? :{

    I’m the learning disability whose job is changing (see Friday open thread). I know it’s not exactly the same, but many of these worries, especially having had to disclose, are my worries. I think it’s worth asking the question, though, because I’m sure people with illnesses are worried about this also, if they have to ask for accommodation.

    1. fposte*

      That’s definitely a tough place to be in, that’s for sure. First, you talk to your manager (which I know you have, but we’re talking generally here). What you’re looking to find out is if there’s a way to structure things so that you’re not working in the problem area. If there’s something you think you could take on instead of the problem duties, that can be worth mentioning.

      But ultimately the question is do they think you add enough to the business that they’re willing to fit you in a different way. If the answer is a flat no, it’s in your best interest to be preemptive and see if you can negotiate a transition time for a job hunt with a decent reference rather than spiraling down.

    2. AnotherHRPro*

      If you truly cannot do the essential functions of the job, then the employer does not need to accommodate you and it is probably best to find a job that is better suited for what you are able to do. Not all jobs lend themselves to all types of disabilities. For example, a person with dyslexia is probably not suited for a job as an editor and being in such a job will result in the person not performing successfully.

      1. Caledonia*

        Interestingly, I used to do admin support for an Inspector who had dyslexia. They inspected various care premises e.g. childminder, nursery, nursing home, places for the less abled etc and would then write a report on it which would then be sent to the providers and eventually published on the website. The Inspector had the software where you speak and it turns into text. I guess you might say, they might’ve not been the best person for the job but all reports were formatted and proofread by us admins before they were sent anywhere externally.

      2. Don't say my name!*

        Trouble is, there isn’t anything else at this level of pay/benefits, because it’s math-related. Took me ages to find this job. :(

    3. Kalli*

      It’s not the whole job though; it’s the essential functions – the absolute core of what the output from that position needs to be. So if you can still do the specialised tasks in the new position, but accommodations will make you be able to produce them faster, at a higher level, or prettier formatting, or whatever it is that you need to make it less impactful on you specifically, then that’s covered. Some employers will be idiots and specify stuff like ‘talking on the phone’ when all the job really is is producing reports or providing a service, where sometimes people call you because people like to talk on the phone, but if you can still produce the reports with emailed information and your own work, then you can show that talking on the phone isn’t _essential_ to the job.
      I know it sucks, having to consider so many extra things. Best of luck.

  10. NJ Anon*

    This is timely for me on 2 fronts.
    First I am interviewing for a high level mental health care agency. Second, as a manager where I currently work, I had a staff person who went out on disability for a mental health issue. Initially she was going to be out 12 weeks. Our agency is too small to have to abide by FMLA but decided to hold her job open for12 weeks. At the end of 12 weeks, she still wasn’t ready to come back so we told her we could no longer hold the position open. She had also mentioned accommodations but for use they were not “reasonable.” She wanted her own office. Well her job description includes reception duties which can only be performed in the front office she shared with the office manager plus we don’t have an extra office.

    It is an unfortunate situation for all although when she first came to me she was just going to quit but I told her not to and to apply for short term disability which she was approved for.

    1. Caledonia*

      I must admit, for me personally, a mental health charity or similar would be the only exception for me to tick the ‘disabilities/mental health’ box.

  11. Lucky to have support*

    I so hope that the stigma of mental illness is the next issue that this country rallies around and we begin to see progress soon.

    A realization that I have come to sort of through the back door is that this is an area where managers really could and should lead by example. With the prevalence of mental illness, there certainly are many senior level people who are secure in their own positions who could be more open about their stories.

    My son (early teen) suffers from anxiety and depression. Things really fell apart last fall, and he spent 5 months hospitalized. I have been in my department a long time and was on the senior management team, had a fantastic boss, wonderful peers, and a great team working for me. This made me comfortable being open with my boss and peers as well as my team. The support I have received (and continue to receive) was helpful beyond words. But it also had an unexpected benefit – it has opened up the mental health conversation in our department. In the middle of all this, I received a promotion. Two employees have since come forward with their own struggles. Both employees had shared a bit with their direct managers – when the managers (my direct reports) told me the situation, I suggested that they share my family’s story with them (while I have been very open with DS’s struggles, apparently not everyone in the organization had heard) and let them know of my willingness to talk with them. In both cases it helped the employees immensely to know they didn’t need to be stressed about the reaction our management team might have. While my family is still in and out of crisis, it does give me comfort to know that our experience is helping others move forward with dealing with their own issues.

    My company has always been a leader in diversity and inclusion. Years ago managers here placed rainbow magnets on their doors to indicate they were “safe” people with whom to discuss LGBTQ issues. I wonder if it’s time for a green ribbon campaign to indicate being safe from the stigma of mental illness.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      I agree with you, and congratulate you on being open about your son.

      Last Monday was the 6th anniversary of one of my uncle’s suicides, and next week will mark the 5th anniversary of another’s. My son graduated high school this year, and they lost two young women in his class to suicide during junior year. I was very open about these incidents with people at work, and every time I was open, someone else said that they had lost a close friend or relative that way, too.

      Mental health issues are something everyone deals with. If you haven’t been to therapy, it’s probably because of the stigma, not because you wouldn’t benefit! I appreciate that everyone can deal with their issues privately at work, but I do wish some sharing took place to keep people from feeling isolated.

    2. Sami*

      I love the idea of the ribbon magnets. How did it work in practice? Do people still use them? What about managers who didn’t have one?

      1. Lucky to have support*

        I haven’t seen a rainbow magnet at work in years, and I’d like to think it’s because there’s no longer a need. I think people used them as a signal that if they were struggling /uncomfortable, it was someone they could talk to. We also have “caucus groups” for various subgroups, including LGBTQ, each led by a senior executive (corporate officer). These groups provide another link to supportive people and peers.

  12. CeeCee*

    My question would be how do you best deal with an unreasonable manager in this situation?

    At my last job, one of my coworkers found out she had the early stages of uterine cancer. On top of treatment, she started seeing a therapist regularly. She confided this to me as a friend, but to our manager told him something to the tune of: “Just so you know, I’m going to be taking some afternoons or mornings off in the upcoming months because I have a medical condition that needs attention.” (I don’t know her exact wording, but I know it was vague as she wasn’t comfortable revealing her medical condition at that time.)

    Within a week, that manager was telling everyone that my coworker has a bunch of doctor’s appointments coming up so she must be pregnant. And the rumor mill was going out of control. To the point where if she wore a peplum top, people thought she was trying to hide a baby bump.

    This situation came to an end when one day, in the middle of the cube farm when the boss made an oddly suggestive comment about how she was eating more than normal and she ended up angrily yelling: “I’d much rather be dealing with a baby than with cancer.”

    She left shortly after. Long story short, the boss was a complete jerk, but I don’t think he’s a unique snowflake here. There are plenty of bad managers and plenty of rumor mills that feed on these types of situations.

    So how would you best handle it if you tried to be vague and your boss kept probing for details? (Common at my last job even when calling in for a sick day) Or when the rumor mill starts because of your absences, without a good manager to shut them down?

      1. CeeCee*

        It absolutely was. I ended up leaving a short time later because the manager really made that job unbearable.

        But reading this article instantly brought my mind back to those times. Especially since every time you’d need time off, be it for appointments of any variety or even just a sick or mental health day, the request was never met with understanding and a respect for privacy. It was always met with skepticism and interrogation.

        “I need to leave at 2 for a Doctor’s appt.” was met with rumors the next day that you had a job interview.
        “Sorry I was late, my car broke down.” was the same. “I need to have some regularly scheduled appointments for a medical condition.” was a free-for-all.

        And it was only under this manager. The manager previous to him went to therapy every Thursday afternoon during a late lunch break and was very open about it. Even to the point of recommending other people see therapists too. (Not in a derogatory or offensive way, just more of a “I find talking to someone else regularly helps me out, maybe it would work for you too” kind of way.)

        I feel like, for people out there who are stuck with the crappy managers, it’s sometimes difficult to discuss time off for any appointments (mental health or otherwise), even when you’re being vague about what’s going on.

    1. AvonLady Barksdale*

      That is HORRIBLE. My head is spinning. There’s insensitivity, but… man. I do wish someone had said something to that manager. I had a manager once who was generally inappropriate, and when one of my co-workers left early for a doctor’s appointment, our boss said, “Are you going to see your therapist???” I actually jumped in (this isn’t something I normally do) and said, “So what if she is? Why would you ask that?”

      If this ever happens again and you’re in a unique position to know what is actually going on, it doesn’t hurt to say, “You know, Sally’s really private, maybe we shouldn’t talk about her like that,” or try to shut him down with a, “We don’t know anything unless she tells us,” or even, “That’s a pretty personal thing you’re talking about!”

      A note in all walks of life: no woman is ever pregnant until she tells you. EVER. Ever ever ever.

      1. CeeCee*

        Oh believe me. I’m a big supporter of women standing up for other women. The job was more than a bit of a boys club and my singular voice against the manager’s didn’t do much to stop that train. Even things like, “Don’t you all think it’s a bit inappropriate to be speculating about Jane’s private life” had no impact.

        It was ridiculously out of control in that office. (I’m so glad I didn’t stay much longer.)

      2. Grapey*

        What are your thoughts on giving up train seats to women that look pregnant but haven’t otherwise said it? I try to err on the side of pointedly asking “would you like a seat” but even then there is room for offense.

        1. Murphy*

          A few weeks ago someone offered me their seat on the train. I definitely looked pregnant to him. I haven’t been pregnant in 19 months. I’m just fat.

          I totally took the seat. :)

        2. AvonLady Barksdale*

          If she’s rubbing her belly, then she’s “said it”. It’s a nuanced thing, but essentially, the signs to look for are massive, obvious pregnancy + discomfort + maybe belly rubbing. Rubbing one’s lower back is also a good sign– and that’s a sign that even a non-pregnant person might appreciate a seat.

        3. CM*

          I think it’s fine to ask, “Would you like to sit?” one time. Around here (Boston, with our reputation for being unfriendly!) it’s pretty common for people to ask others if they would like to sit before sitting down themselves. If you’re already sitting, you could just quietly get up and move without specifically asking anyone. This normally works for me, although once in a while when I do this for somebody who is right next to me and is obviously pregnant, or has a cane, or is under six, another person will immediately swoop in and sit there. And then everybody looks at them like, “Seriously?” while they stare at their phone.

          Also, a partner at the law firm I worked at told me, “I never say anything about a woman’s pregnancy unless I see the baby crowning.”

      3. ThatAspie*

        Yeah, I’m someone who can usually tell whether someone is pregnant vs. not pregnant (I’ve only guessed wrong one time, ever), but I don’t make my predictions public unless they make their pregnancy public. After my one false prediction, I learned (quickly) the importance of keeping quiet about those predictions, just in case. But, really, I’m really good at identifying these things…I just keep my thoughts about there being a little cutie on the way in my head, or, at most, I might, like, tell a stuffed animal what I’m thinking, because they’re not real so they won’t tell.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      There is not much you can do about the rumor mill. If you hear rumors about other people you can shut those down as an example of how you feel about the rumors about yourself.

      “I’d prefer not to speculate what is up with Sue. That is her business. She will tell us if she wants us to know.”
      “Yes, I can Bob is having difficulty. But unless he mentions it to me personally, I really feel I should not be talking about it.”

      To shut down bosses, I have turned on a SUPER-professional persona. I remain polite but they can sense they are over the line. For some questions I answer the question that is asked directly and nothing else. For other questions I say, “You know my time at work is time out from other stuff. I prefer to keep it that way.” Then I repeat as necessary.

      If you are seeing the behavior daily, I see nothing wrong with, “I hope we are not going to talk about this every day, because I have asked for time away from this topic and I would like my request to be respected.”

    3. ThatAspie*

      But, yeah, that totally sucks what happened to that poor woman. I feel so sorry for her. It would be bad enough dealing with something serious like cancer, add on top of that the horrible boss…ugh…that would suck!

  13. Eaten by a grue*

    This is timely, considering summer is usually hardest for me. I sometimes feel a little guilty about hoping others will continue to disclose and the stigma around mental illness will decrease….because I’d quit before ever disclosing voluntarily. Heck, I’ve had nightmares about a co-worker somehow finding out what medicine I take- even if you weren’t familiar with it by name, a quick search would tell you exactly what I have.

    1. A Non*

      There’s no need to feel guilty at least where I’m concerned! I’m able to be open about my illness because of a bunch of reasons, among them being middle class, female, having a less stigmatized diagnosis, living in a time and place that is generally accepting of mental illness, and not having obvious symptoms. It’s safe for me to disclose my issues. I know it’s not safe for a lot of other people, and there have been times and places where I absolutely wouldn’t disclose. I do it for myself and for people like you.

  14. Totally Anon*

    I disclosed that the reason for my absences was depression, and suddenly the absences were a major problem and I was fired. (When it was ‘flu’, there was no such problem…)

    I wanted to believe that people would be reasonable and sensible about mental health, but they aren’t always. I will never bring up my mental health at work again.

      1. Totally Anon*

        I’m sorry to have to be so negative, but it can happen. (This literally happened to me on Friday.) I didn’t think people would be so completely horrible, but they can be. And because I already know I’m vulnerable, I have to protect mysef.

      2. Don't say my name!*

        Mine too–it’s one reason I never said anything about the LD before and just tried to avoid jobs where there was a lot of math. Which don’t pay all that well….

        1. Temperance*

          There are lots of jobs that don’t deal with math and pay well! I’m an attorney, and barely anyone in my office deals with math. Just the tax people and estate people.

          1. Jaydee*

            If I had a nickel for every time someone said “I went to law school because I wasn’t very good at math….” I would have, um…carry the 5…um…a large pile of nickels.

    1. PF*

      I’ve recently started up regular therapy (again) and even though my boss is a reasonable person who I get along with really well, I explained my appointments as “I’m going to be in late on Tuesday mornings for a while for appointments. It’s just something I’ve been putting up with for a while – nothing scary – but it’s time to get it taken care of. It requires a lot of regular follow up appointments, which will start out weekly but get less frequent depending on how things go.”

      The “nothing scary” caveat was to stave off assumptions of major illness like cancer, and the “putting up with for a while”, while true, is so he doesn’t assume I’m pregnant (I’m the only female in the office). I think at this point, between my explanation and the lack of further detail, he and my male co-workers just assume it’s a women’s health thing, which suits me just fine since they don’t ask for more information.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I do think this is a great point. People want to know if others are in deep trouble, this goes beyond workplace relationships. It’s the human part of many of us. If you can say that this is nothing life threatening or similar wording that can stop a lot of questions right there.

        I had major problems with my ears. Most of the time it felt like someone was putting hot needles in my ears. I got sick of talking about, I got sick of being sick, I got sick of trying new things, I got sick of being dizzy from pain. One person finally stopped asking me questions when I told her I was not going to die from it. I only FELT like I was going to die from it. It turned out that all her questions were just trying to find out the severity of the problem. I was in my own world for obvious reasons and I never realized she thought I was dying. When I would not answer her clearly, that seemed to only confirm her worries, not lessen them.

    2. Chinook*

      “I disclosed that the reason for my absences was depression, and suddenly the absences were a major problem and I was fired. (When it was ‘flu’, there was no such problem…)”

      This is my fear as well as I think my boss has noticed a recent uptick in sick-related absences (I would bet good money that my last batch of meds had expired because it was like I wasn’t taking them but, when I started on the refill, the symptoms disappeared) and I can tell she wants to ask if I am okay. On the plus side, her daughter has been going through treatment for an eating disorder, so she knows that some illnesses are mental and can’t be easily overcome. On the other hand, I don’t want someone judging my ability through the lens of my illness. Then, add to this mix, the fact that I am now employed via a temp agency which means no job security, and I know there is a real risk of being told not to come into work tomorrow. (In my boss’ defense, she was shocked and appalled when I told her what the difference between the new agency contract vs. my independent contractor contract was, so I can’t see her doing it.)

      That being said, I have slowly come out to others when appropriate or timely because mental health issues need to be talked about. I compare it to Type 1 Diabetes – no one shames a diabetic for their symptoms. It helps that I can trace my issue to a childhood concussion and concussions have made the media up here due to Sidney Crosby, but I still worry about people judging my capabilities as a leader or trusting me to work with children. It may sound silly to an outsider, but when already in a clinically depressive state, you aren’t apt to be optimistic about anything. Add to that being mildly manic at other times and self aware in all these states (I know my reactions are illogical but I still can’t control them), and it is hard to trust my internal view of a situation as being realistic.

      1. Julie Noted*

        “I compare it to Type 1 Diabetes – no one shames a diabetic for their symptoms.”

        Unfortunately not true. (Yeah, I know, WTF?) Of course this doesn’t detract from your point. Some people suck at any kind of illness :(

  15. Anon for this one, just in case*

    I had recently written in to Alison about this topic, so I’m glad she is addressing it here. In my case, its very difficult to have time off for anything (remote location for our branch of the office and I’m the only regular office employee. There is someone who can sometimes potentially work in the office in my place but I would have to work around his schedule and what he has going on. The office can’t really be closed for any length of time because of various reasons.) So I wouldn’t be able to just say “Popping out for a quick dr’s appt” and do that weekly or bimonthly without it being a big deal that requires scheduling and making sure certain people know I wouldn’t be available during that time period. Add anxiety to that and my general uneasiness with bringing myself to anyone’s attention or having to approach the subject, and I pretty much just suffer in silence. I wish evening/weekend appointments were an option…

    1. Cat*

      Would you feel comfortable developing a shoulder or knee issue that requires physical therapy for a bit? That’s a pretty easy cover.

    2. Mike*

      Evening appointments are common for therapists. In my therapist’s office most of them have appoints at 6pm.

  16. Anon for This*

    This is timely for me. What do you do when the issue isn’t accommodations or time off to get help, but actually just keeping it together at work? I can get away for therapy once a week, but dealing with the distraction at work is . . . harder. I think it’s largely been masked by the fact that it has been a stressful time at work so people are assuming it’s just that, but I’m almost wondering if I need to say something beyond that to a couple of people.

    1. Jaydee*

      Dealing with the distraction at work can be an issue or accommodations. Are you talking about trouble dealing with workplace distractions or are you talking about being off-task because you are distracted by symptoms? Either one can potentially be accommodated depending on the nature of your job. Trouble dealing with workplace distractions can be accommodated by providing a more private/quiet work area, adjusting work hours so you come in before others or stay later than others to have a couple hours of time with fewer interruptions, changing communication methods, etc. Being distracted by symptoms can be adjusted with flexible scheduling, more frequent breaks, access to a quiet area for meditation or rest or whatever it is that helps you cope with symptoms, etc.

  17. nicolefromqueens*

    I get around psychotherapy stigma by also going to physical therapy. PT visits can be weekly or 2-3 times a week, and I only need one note. Unfortunately it only flies if you’re in chronic pain and the underlying reason is backed up by imaging tests.

  18. Anon for this*

    I struggled with this same decision in my last year of graduate school: I’d sought help for anxiety and depression, which were exacerbated by certain features of the program (isolation, vague requirements, missing data, etc.). One consequence was that I was objectively not doing well in my research, and had I taken a semester “off the clock” to deal with the issue, I would’ve lost health insurance and funding.

    Ultimately, I decided not to disclose and to move somewhere else for a new career track, where I am now thriving. The sink-or-swim nature of academia factored in, as did the fact that my advisor was older and from a country with less progressive attitudes towards mental health than the United States. (He was a good person, but like everyone, had certain limitations.) I have a neutral reference from that time and don’t regret how I handled it, but I do wish mental health was less stigmatized. There were other students who took time off to deal with a partner’s serious illness and the birth of a child, and although they had extra work when they returned, everyone was supportive.

  19. SAHM*

    See, I’m curious about the flip side. I am considering going back to school in a few years simply because I enjoy (i.e. Love) school, but I’m not certain what I should get a masters in. I’m not particularly passionate about anything, I got a BS in Health Science and worked as an Admin for a couple years before becoming a SAHM. My husband mentioned the other day he wouldn’t mind if I didn’t work for the rest of my life, and right now that’s good because we have small children, but I know I’ll get bored after the kids are older. I’m very young, and will only be in my 30’s when my eldest hits highschool, which would be a good time for me to go back to school. Except I really don’t want to waste $ getting a masters in a career I don’t want but how would I know that I don’t want it? Of course I wouldn’t mind making a career of going to school, lol.

  20. jenny*

    I have a good story/experience with my company.

    I started my job on a Monday and left a terrible situation the next day. All pre planned by me and good friends. I literally had my clothes, toiletries and car. The first month or two were very, very rough. I have C-PTSD and had to believe it or not get used to being in safe environment. I was in a safe home with my friends for the first time in my life. I had normal new girl razzing (my company is about 75% male at our location). I was amazed- I was around men all the time, one guy was a person who had a name that started with “J”, one played football where I went to high school (a few years before me), I had to deal with sales reps, my new general manager looked like my ex fiance…the list goes on and on and I swear everyone of my triggers are represented there. I know all of those things sound strange but PTSD just works that way. I don’t know how it is possible, but at one point I was thinking you HAVE got to be kidding me.

    One day a gentleman snatched something out of my hand and got in my personal space. I just looked at him and turned away. The next time I went to work (I job share) two gentlemen commented on it and I noticed while going through our mail a letter from the SSA came asking about proof of my employment there. The gentlemen told our GM what happened and of course I was in a conference room in minutes with him. I basically said I know you got a letter asking for verification of my employment and there was an issue the other day that I walked away from. I do suggest that people here do not try to get aggressive with me. At all. Ever. It just would not be good. I never had to say PTSD. I think the more astute workers noticed something was off with me and I was jumpy, had problems concentrating and froze whenever I was around the men who triggered me (including the new GM).

    Guess what? All the guys are cool and respectful to me now, there was sexual harassment videos shown, sensitivity training and I have had no further issues at work (well catty women, but what can you d0?). I am now just one of the guys somewhat, as much as the youngest female employee can be. I, if I may say am kicking major a** there and get compliments on my work. Just last week someone jokingly told me to stop doing my job so well because I was catching mistakes and making his job harder for him. Those guys are all now my work buddies. I will be there 6 months in a few days.

    I did not plan on telling anyone, and in most ways did not. I know they all somewhat have an inkling. I could have been gotten rid of quickly as I was new to the position and the industry. Sometimes people and companies can surprise you. I hope everyone can find a place like that. I was tempted to write in to ask Allison how to deal with all this when it was going on but now I can just give my experience a few months in.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      People can be so awesome. What a great story, thanks for sharing a what-to-do. We see a lot of what-not-to-do, which is helpful but it doesn’t really provide info on what-to-do.

      1. jenny*

        Thankfully I have read this site for a few years as a lurker. I believe that has helped me so much…

    2. another anon*

      This is great (well, apart from someone traumatizing you in the first place)

      Also, if anyone accuses your manager and coworkers of being too liberal and coddling, you and they can point out that PTSD is also an issue for some combat veterans (I don’t know if you’re also a veteran yourself or not). Making an effort to not actively trigger other people is *patriotic*.

  21. Anon in nonprofit*

    I wish I had asked for specific accommodations. In retrospect I wish I had asked for quiet/private space, leeway on the “no cellphone” rule to text my support system, flexible scheduling so I could sleep better, and/or reduced hours.

    I don’t think my boss necessarily would have accommodated me, or that it would have prevented my firing, but it would have made the subsequent lawsuit a lot easier.

  22. Ariane*

    On my work, we have one manager that always asks too many questions. In Holland, you don’t have to answer the question what you have when you are calling in sick. She always asks several questions to find out why you are not coming to work. Even when I said I wanted to work more, she asked why. My answer was that I can save more money when I work more… The next question of her: ‘what are you saving money for?’. Maybe it is just curiousness, but it feels like I have to proof myself or something. Many colleagues don’t know that they don’t have to answer the question about what they have and sometimes the manager doesn’t believe them when they are calling in sick.
    I really want to do something about it, but I am just a service employee and do not have much to say in the organization.

  23. Julie Noted*

    This article is really timely! I work in a large government department and am interested in learning about specific steps the organisation can take to build a mentally healthy environment – supporting people who experience mental health issues, ameliorating risk factors and strengthening protective factors as much as possible.

    There’s the obvious stuff about cracking down on bullying, discrimination and unhealthy hours/demands, offering mental health awareness training and EAP services. I’d love to hear from anyone with stories of other ideas that work well, if you’re can spare a few minutes to share. Left field suggestions very welcome too!

  24. SallyForth*

    Three years ago, I confided my depression diagnosis to my immediate manager and to our Executive Director at a small not for profit. The issue was that I could ask for time off for doctor appointments without spelling out the diagnosis but then was put on a drug that had a side effect of excruciating headaches for the first week and needed some leeway.

    We had many clients who had comorbid diagnoses of mental illness and I felt confident things would be handled well. They were. Until one day when I was pressing a point in a design meeting and the ED said, “You have let your anxiety disorder take over your reason here.” I don’t have an anxiety disorder. I have depression. I know sometimes the two go together, but not with me. I wasn’t at all out of control or emotional, just quietly adamant that the design change wouldn’t work. She was losing the argument and chose to be nasty about it. I realized then that I had lost credibility in her eyes. And yes, she overruled my right to have my medical condition kept private, but I knew it was time to go.

    At my new job, HR is wonderfully accommodating and helpful. My suggestion is that if you don’t have a solid HR department, don’t disclose.

  25. stevenz*

    I have never been comfortable talking about my mental condition at work. I have a manager who asks very intrusive questions that I think would be considered inappropriate in the US. I give her evasive answers but she makes it clear that she doesn’t like that and for some reason I should open up to her. First of all, no. This is work, not therapy, and I don’t owe them all my personal foibles. Second, I don’t like my manager nor do I trust her. She’s dishonest. Third, there is no reason to believe that anything I say to her would be kept confidential. There seems to be a culture of snitching here. Fourth, as many comments here attest, that kind of information can be used against someone and that someone is already vulnerable, that’s putting a very big stick in your manager’s hand.

    The big problem with me, though, is that the main contributor to my anxiety/depression *is* work, but because of things no one is going to do anything about. The management culture here is atrocious in my view, but it’s not a place where one can feel “safe” bringing it up. (To exemplify, our small team has been subject to reorganisation four times in the past year and a half, and for all that time our jobs have been on the line. We’ve been writing job descriptions for our replacements for the past six months or so, but our manager has *never* acknowledged that that’s an awful thing to do to people.)

    This isn’t limited to me. A lot of people here have medical issues, meaning mental issues requiring therapy and/or medication, and it’s all job stress related. In fact, problems here are known throughout the health care industry in this city, which I find pretty remarkable. I went to EAP once, but didn’t like the person who was assigned to me. In fact, I have found EAP to be useful only for referrals to “real” doctors. They aren’t capable of dealing with serious mental health issues, and they shouldn’t try. Anyway, this job is literally killing me but we’re supposed to find out this week (it’s Wednesday here) what our employment status is, so the train is getting closer and it will be all over soon.

  26. Kalli*

    Another factor to consider is that disclosing a condition – _any_ condition – may make things difficult for you after you leave that position as well. If you have to leave that workplace for any reason, your references may be compromised, your entitlement to unemployment/other claims may be compromised, and it may well follow you through your career as you deal with the same people from another position in the industry. It’s not always just a matter of asking for a small accommodation – we have to decide whether we’re willing or able to deal with the questions for the rest of our lives, whether or not people in that one workplace are good to us or not. That isn’t going to change whether you’re circumspect – see how many letters there are about people faking leave – or clear or through anything but widescale societal change, which won’t happen soon enough to be of benefit.

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