How To Tell Your Employer About Your Mental Illness

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Whether you’ve been aware of your mental illness for a long period of time, or it has been recently discovered and diagnosed, it can have implications for all spheres of life. Your job or place of employment is no exception. Many people opt to keep mental illnesses private rather than disclosing them to employers. Because every individual’s circumstances are so multifaceted and personal, sometimes this can be the best option.

However, in some cases, speaking to your employer can be highly beneficial for everyone involved and can often help you in ways that you don’t always anticipate. Though it is always a risk, you must determine for yourself whether or not to talk to your employer about your mental and how to give it the best chance of success.

Why It Can Be Important To Share With Your Boss

Though mental health is slowly becoming a more forefront concern for many employers, your place of employment’s ability to support mental health concerns and needs can range considerably. This is why it can be a risk to share. However, a person’s mental health is arguably one of the most critical contributing elements to their ability to thrive in all areas of life.

This particularly applies to being able to perform in professional roles and settings. Whenever it is possible and safe to disclose this information in your workplace, it can be to your advantage to do so.

Letting your employer know about your mental illness can help your employer better understand both your strengths and your limits. This creates an opportunity for them to interact with you more thoughtfully and knowledgeably.

For instance, if an employer understands how your mental illness restricts your capacity in certain areas, they can plan ahead to solve problems in ways that don’t compromise your thresholds or respond better when you have to refuse or adapt requests that would be difficult or impossible for you to fulfill.

Second, sharing with your employer can initiate a conversation about how to adjust the way you work in ways that can make it more sustainable. Employers that care about their employees (which hopefully describes your employer), know it is in their best interest to create environments and arrangements conducive to receiving their employees’ best. If your employer knows about your situation and needs, they have the opportunity to work with you and create expectations and frameworks that serve you both better in the long run. This can ultimately lead to working conditions that are more sustainable, comfortable, and effective both for you and for them.

Leading Up To A Conversation

The first step in this process is deciding whether or not you will have the conversation. Though you can never fully mitigate the risk or predict what effects it may have on your work relationships or experience, a little bit of reconnaissance can often give you a bit of guidance and indicate what you might expect.

Does the company have any kind of existing health policy? Have any other coworkers had similar experiences in the past? Have you seen your employer navigate accommodations or needs with other employees? Do a little bit of digging and, when possible, ask around to get a sense of what you might experience.

A conversation about mental illness should be given it’s due in gravity, as it’s not an easy topic and is deeply personal. How, when, and where will you have this kind of conversation? Think through when you and your boss will both be in the best headspace for this kind of dialogue.

Engaging in what can be a weighty, vulnerable conversation always includes risk. It’s important to think through any harder implications or potential outcomes and come to terms with them as best as you can before you have a conversation.

Try to imagine how your disclosure could sit with your employer. What implications will they be concerned about? What questions would they have? How might what you have to say impact them and the company in their mind? Think through effective ways to mitigate risk, change, or uncertainty.

Present A Solution, Not A Problem

This can be an important part of your conversation especially if you would like to ask for accommodations or change the current status quo. Rather than present your situation as a problem and then wait for your employer to suggest a solution, think through how you might craft a proposal that would meet both your needs and the needs of your organization.

It may be suggesting a hybrid in-office and work-from-home model. It could look like asking a coworker to shuffle responsibilities slightly so that you can perform more of the things you excel in and exchange them for tasks they don’t mind doing that are more difficult for you. Or proposing an alternative schedule that allows you to perform at your best but still results in fulfilling your responsibilities. Whatever form it takes, presenting not only the situation but an idea for making it better can yield a much better outcome.

Allow Time For Your Employer To Process And Regroup

For some employers, this might be the first conversation of this kind that they have ever had. They may not react in ways they expect or would repeat after they’ve had some time to think and process. Have grace and patience with an initial reaction that might be misinformed, baffled, confused, or frightened.

If the conversation takes a negative or difficult turn, it’s ok to suggest that you conclude the conversation temporarily and both take a little bit of time before revisiting. Schedule a time for that follow up conversation and be willing to let the subject rest until then. This can give your employer time and space to think through what you’ve said and then respond in a more tempered and compassionate way.

Know Your Rights

You are entitled to legal protections that can safeguard you against being abruptly fired or discriminated against because of a mental illness. In most cases, this doesn’t need to be part of the conversation. However, if things do take an unfortunate turn and your employer does not handle the situation well, it’s important to know the rights you have so that you can fight back against being treated unfairly or wrongfully. Even if your employer tries to make this a blame game, you don’t have to buy into that mentality. Mental illness is not your fault.

If you decide to disclose your mental illness to your employer, conducting that process thoughtfully can result in a much better outcome. It can help you and your employer navigate a complex reality and ultimately create an effective response that serves you both well.

Andrew Deen has been a consultant for startups in almost every industry from retail to medical devices to human resources. He implements lean methodology and is currently writing a book about scaling up business.

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