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Should I disclose my mental health disability to my employer?

mental health disability work

First, it is not uncommon for individuals to develop or sustain a mental health disability over the course of their career. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) notes that "mental illnesses are common in the United States" and that as of 2014, 18.1% of the adult population suffered from a mental illness.

It could be depression, generalized anxiety disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, ADD, OCD, or schizophrenia. The NIMH has a complete list here.

Either way, it is wise for an individual to think through whether and how to go about disclosing that disability, particularly where it is starting to have an impact on the job.

1. What is protected

To begin, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its state law counterpart provides that if an employee has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, he or she can ask for a reasonable accommodation at work that would enable the individual to be able to perform the essential functions of the job.

What is a "major life activity"? Many things, including working, breathing, communicating, concentrating, eating or sleeping.

And when is the impairment "substantially limiting"? When, for example, it makes activities more difficult, uncomfortable, or time-consuming to perform compared to the way that most people perform them.

And what is a "reasonable accommodation"? The US Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy gives some examples particular to psychiatric disabilities on its website:

  • Telecommuting and/or working from home.

  • Part-time work hours, job sharing, adjustments in the start or end of work hours, compensation time and/or "make up" of missed time.

  • Sick leave for reasons related to mental health, flexible use of vacation time, additional unpaid or administrative leave for treatment or recovery, leaves of absence and/or use of occasional leave (a few hours at a time) for therapy and other related appointments.

  • Breaks according to individual needs rather than a fixed schedule, more frequent breaks and/or greater flexibility in scheduling breaks, provision of backup coverage during breaks, and telephone breaks during work hours to call professionals and others needed for support.

To put that all together then -- when an individual has a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits -- making it more difficult to perform -- a major life activity -- such as eating, sleeping or working -- he or she can ask for a reasonable accommodation -- some sort of change -- at work that would enable him or her to perform the essential functions of the job.

2. Whether, when and how to disclose a disability?

Whether to disclose one's disability must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Some factors to consider are the extent of the impairment; if is already impacting or threatening to impact job performance and/or professional relationships; and whether a suitable accommodation may be available.

For example, if an individual has already been disciplined for a performance issue that is related to the disability and there may be a workplace modification that will help reduce the risk of that issue occurring again, that is one factor to consider. However, it is also very important for most employees to talk through how the disclosure of disability could affect perceptions of the employee and his or her career growth.

Additionally, how and what exactly to disclose is another important consideration. Is it wise to disclose the complete diagnosis in the first instance? Or is it better to get a medical professional's help to request a reasonable accommodation to perform certain job functions differently? The answer is it depends -- upon how the disability is already impacting you at work.

And to whom -- one's immediate supervisor? The HR department? What happens if it's a small workplace and there is no separation between "HR" and the boss? Again, this answer turns on the circumstances of one's workplace, which differ from small to large, sophisticated to not so much.

If you are wading in these waters and would like to talk it through or need some advice, contact me.

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