Should You Let Your Boss Know If You Have a Mental Illness?

How to handle a mental health issue at work.

Posted Apr 29, 2020

Photo by Amy Hirschi  on Unsplash
Whether to share with your boss that you're having a personal problem can be tricky.
Source: Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

One in five people will be affected by a mental health challenge, mild or major, at some point in their lives. If you're employed, under what conditions is it wise or unwise to disclose personal information when you’re facing a difficult mental health challenge? It’s risky business: The word “boss” alone can raise the hair on back of your neck. It’s difficult to make yourself vulnerable to someone with authority over your welfare and future.

Because of the power differential between bosses and employees, employers are often the last to know when an employee suffers from a mental health issue. The American Psychological Association reported that 75 percent of the workforce said that dealing with their boss was the most stressful part of their job. And studies show that a toxic boss is the top reason employees leave jobs. If you’re like many workers, you may not trust your supervisor enough to reveal personal information because of the stigma of mental illness. You may fear your boss will treat you differently, question your ability to function in your position, discriminate against you, or pass you over for promotions and pay raises.

You might be able to get through the hardship on your own with the support system you have in place. Studies show that that’s what most employees do: They rely on their own resources and plod through. A 2019 poll by SurveyMonkey found that 53 percent of employees reported that they go to work even when a mental health day would benefit them. And only 15 percent said they would be honest about why they stayed home for lack of the company’s support. Deloitte studies show that 32 percent of employees lack trust in their leadership and that two out of every three workers are actively looking for new jobs. A majority of employees (95 percent) in one Deloitte study didn’t disclose to their bosses the real reasons for taking time away from the office.

Protecting Your Mental Health in the Workplace

Some experts advise you to be careful about what you tell your boss. It could cost you your job. But what if you’re so devastated that you can’t function at your usual standard and need to inform management. You don’t want your personal life to interfere with your job performance, yet you don’t want management to think you’re not up to speed, either. Your personal life is private, yet your boss’s understanding and support would be a huge relief. You might have a perfectly legitimate reason that you need your boss to understand and hopefully support during the hardship. Every case is different and it’s your call. Although sharing your personal life with your employer is daunting, your wellness is the top priority. When you’re facing a difficult emotional crisis, your main focus should be to take care of yourself first and do what’s best for you.

Steps You Can Take

If you work in a culture of openness and acceptance of mental health issues, it can benefit you to speak with management. But first find out your company’s policy on mental health and what your legal rights are. You might be comforted to know that a workplace mental health issue has legal protection under the Americans With Disabilities Act, and it’s illegal for an employer to discriminate against you for having a mental health condition. Plus, your company is required by law to keep your situation confidential and to provide you “reasonable accommodations” such as a modified work schedule or time off for treatment. But that could be cold comfort when you learn it’s up to your manager to determine what “reasonable accommodations” means. If you do not sense that your issue will be met with understanding and empathy, you might decide it’s not worth the risk of disclosure.

On the other hand, it’s important to remember that management can’t offer support if they don’t know you need it. Bosses are human, too, and many have loved ones with mental health challenges, or have had their own. Competent employers know your well-being improves your job performance, makes their jobs easier, and makes them look good. Perhaps you have worked long enough under someone you feel close to and trust—someone who has shown sensitivity to the plight of other coworkers and treated them fairly when they needed personal time off. Maybe your assessment is that your boss is reasonable and fair-minded. A trusting working relationship might be all you need to decide to openly share your struggle.

The manner in which you present your predicament is key to making a good impression so your boss is more willing to negotiate with you. That’s why it’s important to arm yourself with a proposal: If you’ve done much of the planning in advance, you’re empowered from the get go, and you save your boss valuable decision-making time and preparation. It makes a good impression when you give the situation forethought and take responsibility for the effect your situation might have on coworkers, your boss, and the company.

Increasingly, employers are educating themselves on the importance of mental health for a sustainable workforce. They know that job performance is contingent on mental health care and that overall good mental health among employees is an asset and a good investment for both themselves and the company. Whatever you decide, perhaps the most important decision of all is that you make your mental wellness a priority and take steps to protect it on a daily basis.

References

Follmer, K. B., & Jones, K. S. (2018). Mental Illness in the Workplace: An Interdisciplinary Review and Organizational Research Agenda. Journal of Management, 44(1), 325–351. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206317741194

Goetzel, R.Z. et al (2018). Mental health in the workplace. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 60 (4), 322-330