The last time I worked at a full-time office job, I used all of my sick days on mental health crises. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. And each time I would tell the same lie instead of addressing my mental health issues at work.
“I’m soooooo sorry,” I would groan into my manager’s voicemail. “I won’t be in today. I have some kind of stomach bug. It’s really gross. You don’t want to know the details, trust me.”
It wasn’t that I particularly enjoyed lying to my manager, but I worried that talking about depression and anxiety and my mental health issues at work might lead to me being underestimated, socially shunned, or, worst of all, fired. I knew, of course, that it wasn’t legal for my employers to discriminate against me because of mental illness, but I also knew that, according to a study conducted by researchers at Cornell University, nearly a quarter of those who disclose their mental illness at work suffer negative consequences. I was working in finance at the time, and my office was a fast-paced, high-stress environment. Difficult clients and supervisors who preferred to motivate through fear instead of praise meant it was normal for employees to cry in the bathroom on their lunch breaks. How was I supposed to ask for sympathy and understanding of my mental health issues at work in a workplace culture like that?
It was normal for employees to cry in the bathroom on their lunch breaks. How was I supposed to ask for sympathy and understanding in a workplace culture like that?
According to the World Health Organization, one in four people will experience mental or neurological disorders in their lifetime. People who live with mental illness often require accommodations at the workplace; some of those might be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires employers to offer “reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities. But, according to Jared Cook, an employment lawyer at Adams Bell Adams, P.C., if an employer is not willing to grant mental health accommodations on their own, invoking the ADA can be tricky.
“The first issue is whether you are a qualified individual with a disability,” Cook says. “Mental illnesses can count as disabilities, but it depends on how severe the illness is, and how substantially it limits you in your major life activities—things like sleeping, breathing and eating, for example. A person that has been diagnosed, has had therapy, taken medications and so on, will have an easier time proving that they have a disability.”
So, what if an employer refuses to recognize their employee’s mental illness as a disability and the issue has to be escalated? What kinds of things will be taken into consideration if it becomes a court case?
“Lots of disability litigation centers around whether the accommodation is reasonable,” says Cook. “The way courts decide that is whether the accommodation would create an undue hardship. Things like an employee getting special treatment in ways that would violate a union contract’s seniority provisions, for example, have been held to be an undue hardship. If the employer can provide the requested accommodation without substantially interfering with its business, then it should be required to do so.”
What do accommodations for mental illness look like?
What do accommodations for mental illness look like? In my case, it usually means being able to take an unscheduled mental health day on short notice. I’ve also had employment situations where I’ve had to take a few hours off in the middle of the day, since many mental health treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy and psychotherapy, often happen during business hours. People with mental illness might also need smaller workarounds, like slightly different hours (because medication might impact their sleep/ability to function), a quiet and dim workspace, regular breaks from screen time, and the ability to catch up missed hours on weekends.
But if employees don’t feel safe talking to their managers about health issues—including, but not limited to, mental health issues—then that’s an indication that there’s something wrong with the corporate culture. The onus is on managers to create an environment where employees feel safe to disclose, not the other way around.
If employees don’t feel safe talking to their managers about mental health issues, then that’s an indication that there’s something wrong with the corporate culture.
“As a manager, we have an important job to create a culture of trust and acceptance within our departments,” says Harmony Pokora, who has worked in management in the insurance industry. “This can be as simple as: being approachable, ensuring absences are not unnecessarily scrutinized, addressing any issues in a compassionate manner, and displaying empathy for employees if disciplinary measures are required. When this type of culture is created, it becomes simpler to address and resolve situations where an employee’s mental illness begins to affect their quality of work, attendance, or professional relationships. Many times managers fail to consider this and go directly to the formal discipline path of verbal warnings, written warnings, and potential termination.”
If managers don’t create a workplace where employees feel comfortable disclosing mental illness—or, even worse, if they flout the law and refuse to take reasonable steps to create a more accessible work environment—then the consequences can be dire.
Mary Molise, a graduate student, found an administrative position at a fitness studio through a government employment program. At first it seemed like a great fit for a young single mother; her employers insisted that the workplace didn’t have a hierarchy and was “like a family.” However, it soon became clear that the job was not what it had seemed; paychecks were delayed, employees were expected to work unpaid overtime, and personal boundaries weren’t respected. When Molise tried to advocate for herself, she was chastised for not being a good “family member.” As time went on, the work exacerbated Molise’s existing mental health issues, but she felt that her job would be in jeopardy if she spoke to her employers. Eventually, exhausted by anxiety and sleeplessness, Molise collapsed at work and was taken to the hospital. Her employer later scolded her for not disclosing her mental illness.
Exhausted by anxiety and sleeplessness, Molise collapsed at work and was taken to the hospital. Her employer later scolded her for not disclosing her mental illness.
“In retrospect, the comments about being a family were red flags,” says Molise. “Having no hierarchal structure meant that there was no accountability when things went wrong; it also made it easier to gaslight and coerce employees. When I eventually quit, I was told that I was acting in a very hurtful manner and that my workplace was a supportive one, because, after all, they called an ambulance when I passed out at work.”
As in Molise’s situation, being mentally ill in an unsupportive workplace can often feel like a no-win situation: they fail to give you what you need in order to succeed, and then blame you when you struggle and eventually burn out due to lack of accommodation. So, what’s a mentally ill person supposed to do?
Here are a few tips on how to deal with mental health issues at work:
New jobs are always exciting, and it can be hard to remember to do your due diligence about everything. That being said, try to take some time to find out what the corporate culture is like before diving in. A little bit of detective work can save you a lot of headache, and even if there’s nothing you can do to change the situation – maybe you’ve already signed the contract, or else maybe you can’t afford to wait and see if there’s another job on the horizon – forewarned is at least somewhat forearmed.
One big mistake that I’ve made in past employment situations has been to wait until my boss realizes that I’m struggling before disclosing my mental illness. On the one hand, this tactic sort of makes sense, in that there’s a chance that your manager might just never clue in to the fact that anything is going on. But on the other hand, waiting until your mental illness is starting to effect your work performance will make the issue that much harder to solve.
Telling an employer about your mental illness doesn’t have to mean sacrificing all of your privacy. They only need to know the aspects of your mental illness that impact your work life. It’s a good idea to figure out beforehand what these aspects are, which brings me to my next point, namely:
Try not to walk into a meeting unprepared, where you might be caught unaware with difficult and potentially deeply personal questions. Make a list of what you want to discuss with your employer, and try to stick to your talking points. And while you’re making that list, remember to:
Your employer will have a much easier time giving you what you need if you tell them exactly what you need. Don’t make them try to guess, or assume that they’ll know the types of accommodations you require. Once they know what you want, they can give you a clear yes or no.
If your employer denies your request for accommodation, how will you handle it? Or, if you choose not to disclose your mental illness, what will you do if your mental health ever prevents you from fulfilling your obligations at work? It’s important to stay positive and imagine best-case-scenarios, but you also have to have some kind of idea of what you plan to do if things ever go south.
Sometimes quitting is impossible. Sometimes you absolutely cannot leave a job. I have absolutely been there; I have lived in poverty, and am so terrified of returning to poverty that I have never once quit a job without having another prospect lined up. But I can also tell you that there were times when sticking with a job made me so sick that I wound up losing money in the end because of the time it took me to recuperate. Looking back, there are times when I should have cut my losses and walked away earlier.
Sometimes quitting is the only thing that will save you.