Should I tell my supervisor about my mental illness?

It can be difficult to decide if you should talk to your supervisor about a mental health condition. Though this is changing in many places, there still may be a stigma in some workplaces. And if you are not sure how your supervisor might react, talking to them can be scary.

Whether or not to disclose your mental illness is up to you but knowing your rights can help you make an informed decision. The important thing to remember is that no matter how scary, you still need to find the best way to support yourself on the job. This may include asking for reasonable accommodations or documenting instances of discrimination.

Knowing your rights

Many people feel uncomfortable telling their supervisors about their mental health conditions, and that’s okay. But your employer can’t be held accountable for what they don’t know. For example, if you’re having trouble making it to work on time because your anxiety makes it hard to get enough sleep, your employer may be more understanding than if they think you’re just being lazy. If your mental illness starts interfering with your work, disclosing it may be a good idea.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), your employer is only allowed to ask questions about your mental health in four situations:

  1. When you ask for a reasonable accommodation
  2. After a job offer but before employment begins
  3. When the employer is engaging in affirmative action for people with disabilities
  4. On the job, when there is objective evidence that you may be unable to do your job or pose a safety risk because of your condition.

To receive protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you have to tell your employer that you have a mental illness. If you do talk to your employer, they cannot discriminate against you, including firing you, rejecting you for a job promotion, or forcing you to take leave. And they must keep the information confidential, including from coworkers.

Talking to human resources

Most mid-size to larger companies have a human resources (HR) representative that you can talk to instead of just telling your supervisor. HR representatives often have backgrounds in psychology and tend to be more empathetic. You also don’t report to them for your daily job duties, making it less awkward. If you still need to talk to your supervisor about it, the HR representative can be with you to provide support while you do.

Reasonable accommodations

Telling your employer about your mental illness has another possible advantage: you can ask for “reasonable accommodations.” For example, maybe they can switch you to a later shift, so it’s not so hard to get there on time. Or they may give you more flexibility with your work hours so that you can attend your doctor’s appointments. Little things like this can go a long way in making your job more manageable.

Other considerations

If you decide to take the step and tell your supervisor about your mental illness, then there are a few things that you should be aware of:

  •  You still need to be able to complete the essential duties of the job. The ADA can’t protect you from things like being underqualified or from anything that’s not directly related to your mental illness.
  • Not all accommodations are “reasonable.” If you need too much help to complete your job duties, your employer can argue that the accommodations create an “undue hardship” for the company.
  •  If there are safety concerns, then you can still be let go. Your employer can let you go if your mental illness poses a direct threat to anyone’s safety.
  •   The ADA does not apply to all companies. If the company has fewer than 15 employees, the ADA does not apply.
  •  Your employer may ask for documentation of your mental illness. While our mental health screens are a great starting point, they don’t count as a diagnosis. Only a qualified professional (usually a doctor or a therapist) can provide you with the documentation you need.

It’s up to you to decide if you tell your supervisor about your mental illness. Tools like Empower Work can connect you with a counselor to express your work-related challenges. If you are concerned that your supervisor may fire you if you disclose your mental illness, you can check out the article “Can I be fired for my mental illness?

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (n.d.) Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights. https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/mental_health.cfm

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