Should I Tell My Boss About My Mental Illness?

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The apparent suicide of Robin Williams reopens the public dialogue about the stigma attached to mental health conditions such as depression and PTSD. In light of the topic's interest, we revisit a recent column from our employee advocate on the topic of what to disclose in the workplace about mental illness.

A reader recently asked:

I have 7 years tenure with my company with great reviews. My last 6 month review I had met expectations in every area. I am going through a traumatic personal situation. A new manager was hired in October, and she's the one who gave my last review. In January, I disclosed to her I had PTSD. After that she met with me a month later accused me of not working. Took me to regional manager. They said I was making excuses and were disappointed. She recently told me "maybe you can't do this job anymore". She then lied on coaching logs saying I could not do my work. I went out on leave for PTSD. The last day she had me meet her to give me my year review, which stated I was below expectations in every area. When I came back from leave I was put on a performance improvement plan. She continues to lie about my performance. Is there any way to prove discrimination? They put me on an improvement plan for not meeting certain goals, but my counterparts are having the same problems meeting goals. Other counterparts are having even worse issues and are not put on a performance improvement plan. Please advise.

Unfortunately, the stigma associated with any mental illness means most people are afraid to tell their coworkers or boss. When they do, it's all too common to be subjected to sudden criticisms that you never faced before. In this situation, the fact that you had all good reviews before you disclosed your mental illness and were only written up after you disclosed it could be strong evidence of disability discrimination. If you can prove that your performance didn't change, or that your coworkers are failing to meet the same goals as you and aren't being written up, then you should talk to an employment lawyer in your state or EEOC about bringing a disability discrimination claim against your employer.

In general, it's probably best to keep your personal information to yourself at work, especially when it involves a mental illness. I've had too many people come to me in my law practice saying their boss completely changed his or her attitude after they disclosed depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, PTSD or other mental condition. I suggest not disclosing any mental illness to people at work, no matter how much you get along or how much you think they are your friend, unless you absolutely have to.

However, there are three times you really should disclose that you have an illness, even when it's a mental illness. Here are some situations where you should tell your employer you have a mental illness:
  • You need a leave of absence: Your employer doesn't have to excuse you from failing to meet your performance standards as long as they apply the standards consistently to everyone. If your performance is suffering, you should take time off to get the help you need. If you've worked at least a year, have worked at least 1250 hours in the year, and the company has at least 50 employees within 75 miles of where you work, you probably qualify for Family and Medical Leave. If you need some time off from work to get treatment for your illness, you can get up to 12 weeks of leave in a year through FMLA. If this is your situation, you should contact HR or whoever processes FMLA at work and ask them for the FMLA paperwork. Your doctor will have to fill out the information as to why and how long you need the leave. HR may contact your doctor to verify that they completed the form or for a handwriting translation, but they can't ask your doctor for additional information. Under no circumstances is your direct supervisor allowed to contact your doctor. It's possible your supervisor will never know what kind of illness you have if your employer processes your FMLA correctly.
  • You need time off regularly: If you need to go to regular therapy sessions or have other appointments you need for your disability, you can apply for intermittent Family and Medical Leave. Rather than have to put in for PTO or sick time, or just get a reputation for coming in late or leaving early, getting preapproved intermittent leave can protect you at work. Your employer can't punish you for missing time under your FMLA leave.
  • You need accommodations: Mental disabilities are covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act. That means you can get reasonable accommodations for your mental illness. EEOC says this about accommodations for mental illness:

A reasonable accommodation is a change in the way things are normally done at work that enables an individual to do a job, apply for a job, or enjoy equal access to a job's benefits and privileges. Common reasonable accommodations include altered break and work schedules (e.g., scheduling work around medical appointments), time off for treatment, changes in supervisory methods (e.g., providing written instructions, or breaking tasks into smaller parts), eliminating a non-essential (or marginal) job function that someone cannot perform because of a disability, and telework. Where an employee has been working successfully in a job but can no longer do so because of a disability, the ADA also may require reassignment to a vacant position that the employee can perform. These are just examples; employees are free to request, and employers are free to suggest, other modifications or changes.

Once you request a reasonable accommodation, your employer can't deny it unless they can show an undue hardship. They don't necessarily have to grant the specific accommodation you request, but they must grant an accommodation that will allow you to help you do your job as long as it won't cause significant financial or operational difficulty.

Don't let your fear of stigma at work due to your mental illness stop you from getting the help you need to keep your job. You have legal rights when you suffer from a mental disability, but you have to stand up for those rights in order to be protected.

If you need legal advice, it's best to talk to an employment lawyer in your state, but if you have general legal issues you want me to discuss publicly here, whether about discrimination, working conditions, employment contracts, medical leave, or other employment law issues, you can ask me at AOL Jobs. While I can't answer every question here, your question might be featured in one of my columns, or in an upcoming live video chat.
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