Having a mental health condition can be difficult enough on its own. But when you add in the stigma of mental illness, the challenges that mental illness poses for developing social and romantic relationships, and the potential for significant barriers to employment, you begin to see how quickly the disorder with which you live can begin to rule your life.
Of course, the challenges you might face as someone living with a mental illness will depend on a wide range of factors, not the least of which is the type of mental illness you have. If you’re in the midst of a depressive episode, the chances are good that your long-term functionality will be greater than someone that has severe paranoid schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder.
Likewise, the impacts on your social, emotional, and behavioral functioning will depend on the mental health diagnosis you have. Again, if you have periodic anxiety, your life will likely be less impacted than if you have severe agoraphobia.
Nevertheless, no matter your mental health diagnosis and its severity, the question of whether you should share your diagnosis with your employer is one that is likely at the forefront of your mind.
In some cases – like if you have a severe mental illness – you might not have a choice but to have a conversation with your employer about your mental health. In other cases, your mental illness might not have any impact at all on your ability to work. Therefore, having a discussion about your diagnosis might not be warranted.
In other words, the answer to the question is, it depends.
Below is a discussion of a few factors that might play into your decision to discuss your diagnosis (or not to discuss it) with your employer.
Personal Decision-Making and Disclosing a Mental Health Diagnosis
In the proverbial grand scheme of things, the decision to disclose a mental health diagnosis to an employer is personal.
According to the ADA National Network, the Americans With Disabilities Act governs the workplace rights of mentally ill workers. In fact, the ADA definition of a disability includes the verbiage that a disability is “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” So, if your mental health diagnosis meets that threshold, you have ADA-protected workplace rights, including the right against workplace discrimination based on your mental health condition.
Additionally, the ADA prevents employers from discriminating against employees that have a history of mental illness. So, if at some point in your past you were committed to a mental hospital, employers cannot use that as a determining factor for hiring or not you.
The result of this is that under the ADA, mentally ill people are afforded the right to privacy. This means that you are not required to disclose your mental health condition except for when asking for an accommodation (e.g., providing a screen reader to an employee that has dyslexia).
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five people will experience a diagnosis of some type of mental health condition during their adult lives. The most common diagnoses are:
- Anxiety disorders
- Dual diagnoses
- Bipolar disorder
Of these, anxiety disorders are by far the most common, with 19 percent of U.S. adults experiencing an anxiety disorder at some point. The second most common is depression, which impacts eight percent of U.S. adults. PTSD is experienced by four percent of U.S. adults, while four percent of U.S. adults have dual diagnoses. Other common disorders include obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, and schizophrenia.
The prevalence of mental health conditions among the U.S. adult population underscores the reality that in nearly any workplace there are people with some type of mental health diagnosis.
On the one hand, this demonstrates how effective workers with mental illnesses can be in the workplace. And on the other hand, the fact that a fairly significant percentage of the adult population is diagnosed with a mental health condition might also lessen the stigma that some people perceive to be associated with mental health diagnoses.
But what does that mean for you personally?
The fact that mental illnesses are so common (and that stigmas surrounding mental health issues seem to be lessening) might make you feel more comfortable having this discussion with your employer.
But as an employee, you do not have to disclose any details about a mental health condition if you don’t want to. This also means that you are free to discuss the details of your mental illness with your employer or prospective employer if you wish. So, when trying to decide what to do, just bear in mind that you have no legal obligation to discuss your mental health.
Disclosure of a Mental Health Diagnosis and the Need for Workplace Accommodation
Certain mental health conditions impact a person’s ability to undertake certain tasks and activities. This can include work-related tasks.
With that noted, a person with some types of mental health diagnoses may be able to undertake the basic elements of a position of employment provided there are some reasonable modifications made to the job tasks or work environment.
The American with Disabilities Act establishes an employee’s right to seek certain workplace and job-related accommodations. An employer is obliged to make reasonable accommodations to permit an employee the ability to carry out his or her job duties even when that employee has some sort of mental health condition.
The only caveat is this: the accommodations being requested cannot cause the employer undue hardship for the employer. This means that employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations such that you can adequately perform your job. What qualifies as “reasonable accommodations” depends on a host of factors including your mental health diagnosis, the work environment, and the cost of the accommodation.
If, for example, you have severe OCD as it relates to hand washing, a reasonable accommodation might be that your workspace is placed close to the restroom or that you are provided with hand sanitizer at your desk. An unreasonable accommodation might be that the employer is required to build you your own workspace and restroom that no one else can use.
So, if you find that you’re in a situation in which you are able to improve your on-the-job performance and better your work environment, you should consider sharing your mental health diagnosis with specific members of the management team. The key term here is “specific members.” Talking with the human resources director or your direct supervisor, for example, might be a good place to start, but you by no means have to call an office meeting and tell everyone in the office that you have ADHD.
When seeking reasonable accommodation in the workplace, you need to provide medical documentation of the underlying mental health diagnosis to support your request. The supporting medical materials also underscore that certain reasonable accommodations in the workplace are possible and implementing them will be effective and can be done without undue hardship to your employer.
As noted above, when seeking a mental health work accommodation, it doesn’t necessitate broadcasting your diagnosis “far and wide.” Only that person or those people in management responsible for making decisions regarding workplace accommodation need to be advised of your mental health or medical status.
A Little Introspection Will Help You in Making Your Decision
Knowing that you are not required to disclose a mental health condition, and knowing that employers are required to provide you with reasonable accommodations, your decision to discuss your mental health status might seem like a foregone conclusion.
However, it’s best if you do a little introspection first before making a decision on the matter.
If, for example, you’re applying for a new job, think purposefully about what the job entails and whether or not you can satisfactorily perform the duties of the position without any accommodations. If you believe that you can, there might not be a need to volunteer information about your diagnosis.
Another scenario to consider is whether you can keep up with work and with any mental health treatments at the same time. For example, think about whether your job will interfere with any counseling appointments you might have. Also think about whether you can easily take any medications while on the job, or if your duties would interfere with your ability to do so. If your job and your treatment don’t interfere with one another, there’s likely no need to disclose your diagnosis.
If you are wondering about whether to ask for an accommodation due to mental illness, be sure you go into the process with a clear understanding of what it is that you need.
For example, when asking for an accommodation at work, be sure you can clearly articulate exactly what it is that you’re struggling to do at work, how those struggles manifest, and how it’s related to your mental illness. If need be, make a list of tasks that are difficult for you to do as well as a list of accommodations that you think will help you perform better on the job.
Just be aware that when you ask for an accommodation, it is within your employer’s right to ask questions about your disability. For starters, they can request that you present medical documentation that outlines exactly what your mental illness is. Any information you give your employers on the matter is required to remain confidential.
If you want to minimize the details you share about your mental illness, just be sure to follow the advice above to be very clear with regard to what the problems are you’re having at work and how your mental illness is causing those problems. Focus on work-related issues and suggest solutions to those issues – you do not have to disclose every detail of your illness or your symptomatology, nor do you have to give your employer a detailed outline of your past mental health issues.
How to Discuss Your Mental Health With Your Employer
If you think it’s in your best interest to have a conversation with your employer about your mental health, there are a few guidelines that might make it an easier process:
- As discussed earlier, figure out what it is that you’re struggling with, how it relates to your mental illness, and what you need to manage the issue.
- Have the conversation with the right people – your supervisor, for example – and only the right people. Tina from accounting probably doesn’t need to be involved.
- Choose the right time to approach your employer. You’ll want to ensure that you and your employer have plenty of time to dedicate to the conversation, so schedule an appointment with your boss – don’t drop in on Friday after work and expect to have a lengthy and fruitful discussion.
- Be confident in knowing that your mental health is not grounds for termination or discrimination of any kind. By opening the lines of communication, you’re benefiting you and your employer.
- Keep your employer in the loop. Once you have the initial discussion about your mental health and any accomodations you need, keep your employer informed as to your progress, if you feel it’s appropriate to do so.
Why Sharing Your Mental Health Diagnosis Might Be a Good Idea
While you don’t have to share personal details about your mental health, there are some positive benefits that could come out of having an open and forthright conversation with your employer about the matter.
For starters, opening up about your mental illness can facilitate a more open and supportive workplace environment – for you and for other employees that might have a mental health condition. Additionally, it could be a big relief to disclose at least some information about your mental health to your boss. Some people feel a lot of pressure in keeping their mental health diagnosis a secret, so you might find that you have a lower level of stress if you open up about it.
In the final analysis, there is no set timeframe in which you have to disclose a mental health diagnosis to your employer. Only when a reasonable workplace accommodation of some sort might enhance your work efforts does disclosing a mental health condition potentially become a bit more pressing. Still, you should only discuss your mental health with your superiors when and if you’re ready to do so.
B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming
M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming
B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts
Updated October 2021