Disclosing Mental Illness to Your employer

Is It Appropriate to Share a Mental Health Diagnosis with Your Employer?

Having a mental health condition can be difficult enough on its own. You begin to see how quickly the disorder can begin to rule your life when you add in:

  • the stigma of mental illness
  • the challenges that mental illness poses for developing social and romantic relationships
  • the potential for significant barriers to employment

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 serious mental illness like 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, “Should I disclose my mental illness to my 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 mental health at work

Personal Decision-Making and Disclosing a Mental Health DiagnosisIn 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 mental health rights at work, 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
  • Depression
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTDS)
  • 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
  • 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 workplace mental health stigma.

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. 

Workplace Disclosure of a Mental Health Diagnosis and the Need for Accommodation

Disclosure of a Mental Health Diagnosis and the Need for Workplace AccommodationCertain mental health conditions impact a person’s ability to undertake certain tasks and activities. This can include work-related tasks. Some people with certain mental health diagnoses can work if the job is modified.  The American with Disabilities Act gives employees the right to ask for workplace accommodations.  An employer must make reasonable adjustments so employees with mental health conditions can do their jobs.  

The only caveat is this: the accommodations being requested cannot cause the employer undue hardship for the employer. Employers must give reasonable accommodations so you can do your job well. What qualifies as “reasonable accommodations” depends on a host of factors including:

  • your mental health diagnosis
  • the work environment
  • the cost of the accommodation

We’ll go over an example of reasonable versus unreasonable accommodations.  An individual with severe OCD about hand washing might need a reasonable accommodation like having a workspace close to the restroom or hand sanitizer at their desk. An unreasonable accommodation might be that the employer is required to build the individual their own workspace and restroom that no one else can use.

If you can improve your job performance with modifications to your work environment, consider sharing your mental health diagnosis with specific members of management.  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.  You do not need to call an office meeting and tell everyone in the office that you have ADHD.

To get reasonable accommodations at work, it is necessary to provide proof of your mental health diagnosis.  The supporting medical materials also underscore that certain reasonable accommodations in the workplace are possible.  There needs to be a belief that 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

It can be a relief to know that you are not required to disclose a mental health condition.  Knowing that employers are required to provide you with reasonable accommodations is certainly helpful when making the decision to disclose. However, it’s best if you do a little introspection first before making a final decision.

If, for example, you’re applying for a new job, think purposefully about what the job entails.  Be honest with yourself about whether or not you can satisfactorily perform the duties of the position.  If you believe that you can do the job without accommodations, 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. If your job and your treatment don’t interfere with one another, there’s likely no need to disclose your diagnosis.

If you think you might need to ask for an accommodation, you need to be sure you are going into the process with a clear understanding of what it is that you need.

For example, you need to be sure you can clearly articulate exactly:

  • what it is that you’re struggling to do at work
  • how those struggles manifest
  • 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. 

When you begin the disclosure process to 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 health status, 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.  Remember, you do not have to disclose every detail of your illness or your symptomatology.  You also don’t need to give your employer a detailed outline of your past mental health issues.

How to Discuss Your Mental Health With Your Employer

How to Discuss Your Mental Health With Your EmployerIf 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.  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 poor 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 accommodations 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.  There are benefits for you and for co-workers that might have a mental health condition.  You may discover supports you weren’t aware about like an Employee Assistance Program. 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.  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 problem to your employer. Only when a reasonable workplace accommodation of some sort might enhance your work efforts does disclosing mental illness to your employer 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.

Sean Jackson

B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming

M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming

B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts

Updated October 2021