Nine words changed Barb Solish’s career path.
Years ago, about to leave for an extended work trip, she approached her manager, wanting to ease a simmering worry and set expectations for the trip. “I want to let you know I have bipolar disorder,” Solish explained. “I’ll be taking medications and may need to take some breaks.”
Her boss’s response: “I hope you don’t go all crazy on me.”
Suffice it to say, Solish now works in a much more inclusive environment: She’s on the senior leadership team at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Her personal experience underscores the importance of NAMI’s mental health advocacy campaigns, including its StigmaFree Company initiative, which equips organizations with the tools they need to create a culture of understanding and acceptance around employee mental health.
Sounds great, and it is—on bright white paper, anyway. But in the real world, the intersection of mental health and work includes lots of gray. One good example of this: when Mental’s founder, Amy Keller Laird, decided to publicly reveal her OCD in the pages of Women’s Health magazine in 2016. Advertisers will flee, the sales team said. Readers will think of the brand differently, PR feared. You’re making yourself unemployable, Legal warned.
The movement to destigmatize mental health has come a long way since then, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but we’ve hardly reached peak normalization. While many companies publicly welcome the “whole you,” what some really mean is the whole you minus the parts they don’t want to hear about.
That’s why, before blurting your diagnosis at work spontaneously, Solish recommends mapping things out in advance. “The first thing I would do is take the temperature of the situation,” she says. “Ask yourself, Is my boss someone who is going to be open and receptive?”
If the answer is yes, start there with a private, honest conversation. If the answer is no, you still have an ace to play. You have legal rights granted by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights law that’s been in place since 1990. Many mental health conditions are considered disabilities under the ADA, including anxiety disorders, depression, ADHD, and bipolar disorder.
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The key thing is that your condition has to “substantially limit” your ability to function in some way. Mental health conditions are actually “one of the most common types of disability covered under the ADA,” according to the ADA National Network, a government-funded information hub. And that means you have the right to ask for certain accommodations so you can perform well in the workplace.
Unsure if accommodations apply to you—or uncomfortable asking for them? We’ve got you covered there, too. Even if you decide to keep your mental health condition to yourself, there are specific steps you can take to improve the inclusiveness of the culture around you. No matter which path you take, here’s your guide.
How to Talk About Your Mental Health Condition at Work
Preparation is the key to giving a great work presentation. So it goes with presenting your mental illness to your coworkers. Planning ahead will improve the odds of a productive and positive experience.
Step #1: Define your goals
Be specific. “Maybe you just want to bring your whole self to work and share a piece of who you are, and I think that’s awesome,” Solish says. But more often, she says, people start these conversations because they’re looking for accommodations to help them successfully do their jobs.
Under the ADA, many accommodations are considered “reasonable” and should be granted to someone with a psychiatric disability—the legal term for the impairments the law covers. This could be a flexible schedule that allows you to go to appointments with your therapist. Or access to a private room to make sensitive phone calls. Or communication in your preferred learning style (written instead of verbal, for example). Or an office with more natural light. (We should all have that, amiright?)
You can request these accommodations verbally or in writing, but before you do, list exactly what you need and be ready to explain why they’ll help you excel at your job. If it feels daunting to pull all this together, Solish suggests having a conversation with your therapist or psychiatrist about which accommodations would be most useful to you. You can also get ideas by clicking through the Job Accommodation Network’s website.
Step #2: Be clear that you can do your job
Start and end the discussion by letting your manager know that you’re confident you can perform the tasks you were hired to do. This is actually an ADA requirement: To be able to request accommodations, an employee “must be able to perform essential job functions.”
It also keeps the conversation positive and reassures your manager that you’re a team player who wants to contribute, Solish says. Does your company have a human resources department? Loop them in, because it’s more likely they have training and understand how to navigate these discussions, says San Diego–based employment lawyer Jennifer Rubin.
What if you’re applying for a new job? Some industries—first responders and the federal government, for instance—require that job applicants disclose mental health conditions. The ADA makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against qualified applicants with disabilities, whether physical or mental.
But of course, that doesn’t mean this never happens. So you’ll want to be strategic. If you’re in the very beginning stages of your job hunt and disclosing isn’t mandatory, it might be wise to hold off.
If you’ve gone through 10 interviews (today’s job environment sheesh), think an offer might be coming, and know you’ll need to request accommodations, it may be time to broach the subject. “You’re interviewing right up to the point where you start the job, and from that point on, you’re being evaluated,” says Rubin. “So you don’t want to start the job and then be like, By the way, I can’t do this without XYZ.” That’s what they call a bait-and-switch, capisce?
Open the conversation by reiterating that you have the right credentials and are excited about the position, Rubin suggests. “And then say, Can you accommodate a few things that will allow me to hit it out of the park? I’ve found in the past it’s worked really well for me,” Rubin says.
See how different that sounds than, I am going to require ABCDEFG or I won’t be able to complete my job and this is my legal right? Though it is your legal right, companies can quickly find a a legal way to not hire you and claim it has nothing to do with your ask.
Step #3: Prepare to negotiate
A common mistake people make is treating their request for accommodations as “a list of demands,” says Rubin. “Not only is that not the right mindset, it’s also not what the law requires,” she says. Under the ADA, your employer needs to have a dialogue with you and reasonably accommodate your requests—but they may not be in a position to meet every one, Rubin notes.
“Nobody should assume they’ll come in with a list of 20 suggestions and everything will get done,” she says. “Be open-minded about your employer’s response. You might walk out having agreed on five things that you really need—and that’s a win.”
Solish agrees. “You’ll need to be flexible about your options,” she says.
If your employer totally shuts you down, you still have some recourse. For example, if you feel you are being discriminated against, you can file a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
“Sometimes this is the right thing to do, but you have to think it through,” Rubin says, “because the reality is that going down that road could create a very tense working environment for you.”
It can also backfire. According to a 2022 report published in the journal Psychiatric Services, “judges often side with employers who claim that necessary accommodations would create undue hardship or are otherwise unreasonable or that plaintiffs are not qualified for the job.”
This is why Rubin suggests that if you really like your job and want to make it work, try to stay upbeat and keep negotiating. (Squeezing the hell out of a stress ball under the table? Permission granted.) It could be that your boss lacks education and training about mental health and work accommodations and doesn’t know what to do, in which case bringing in a mediator—someone from HR, say—could be a good next step, Rubin says.
Regardless, keep a paper trail: Save emails and any other written correspondence, download voicemails, take notes, and keep a log of meeting dates and times. Hopefully you won’t need to escalate things, but if your requests are flat-out denied or you face backlash for asking, having everything documented will bolster your case.
Step #4: Avoid going into specifics
If you’re requesting accommodations, your employer has the right to ask for documentation about your disability. Often, a letter from your mental health provider will suffice, and your company is required to keep this information confidential. During your discussions, stay focused on your working environment and job performance and be careful about offering up personal information like specific symptoms and treatment, Rubin says.
This isn’t a place for TMI. Impulsive and emotionally reactive friends, we’re talking to you. “Once you start providing medical information to your employer, things get complicated,” she says. “You’re under no obligation to get into the details of your diagnosis, the medications you’re on, or your prognosis.”
In fact, if you fear retaliation or are simply more of a private person, you can even skip sharing your diagnosis. We repeat, because these nine words might change your life: You do not have to share your actual diagnosis. According to the National Organization on Disability, all that’s generally required is telling your employer that you have an ADA-protected disability.
How Not to Talk About Your Mental Health Condition at Work
And by that we mean, there are still things you can do to encourage a more inclusive workplace environment, even if you decide not to disclose your personal mental health issues. For one, approach your boss or HR department and let them know about NAMI’s StigmaFree program. Or suggest starting an employee resource group to talk about ways your company can better support everyone’s wellbeing during stressful times. (Like, these times. Right very now.)
There’s plenty of work to be done on this front. A 2022 MIT survey of about 1,700 adults found that people tend to avoid coworkers they perceive as being very anxious or depressed, and that people with mental health conditions are often motivated to hide their symptoms from coworkers. And per a 2022 Bloomberg Law report, complaints of mental health discrimination at work filed with the EEOC have been on the rise since 2010.
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Still, there are reasons to feel optimistic, says Rubin, who has been practicing law for more than 30 years. It’s much more common for companies to offer mental health benefits than it was a decade ago, she notes. And she’s seeing an overall shift in attitudes about mental health in the workplace, which she attributes to a combination of factors.
“The pandemic brought a lot of things into sharp focus and resulted in ‘quiet quitting’ and companies having trouble hiring people,” Rubin says. “And as people age in and out of the workforce, more millennials are moving into management roles.” The result? “Increasingly, there’s a willingness to accept people as they are, as opposed to making employees fit a certain mold.” (As they say in The Great, a delightful Hulu show, Huzzah.)
Truth is, a workplace that values mental health benefits everyone, even those without a diagnosis, Solish says. “I love when I open someone’s calendar to schedule a meeting and see that they’ve blocked off an hour and written that it’s for therapy,” she says. “It’s passive, yet it speaks volumes. It says: This is a culture where we can share.”
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