When—and How—to Talk About Mental Illness On The Job

Updated: May 10, 2021

Experts explain how to talk about mental illness at work with your boss and when it's a good time to bring it up.

If you have a mental illness—depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or others—you’re not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in five Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year, and one in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.

Left untreated, many mental illnesses can have a huge impact on day-to-day life, including work. Whether you work in an office, on a construction site, in a government building, or from your home, it can be an unwelcome co-worker that you have to confront every day. In fact, according to the ADA National Network (a resource on the Americans with Disabilities Act—ADA, about 18 percent of U.S. workers report having a mental health condition in any given month, making psychiatric disability one of the most common types of disability.

But the good news is that there are many treatment options out there that can help people not only live but thrive with a mental health condition.

“Mental illness can be managed by various psychological and pharmacological interventions,” says Deniz S. Ones, PhD, director of the Industrial-Organizational Psychology Program at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “For most jobs, well-managed psychological conditions do not and need not affect job performance, and thus should not preclude employment,” she adds. “Employees and employers can work together to find suitable approaches when accommodations need to be made.”

So, how do you know when you should mention a mental illness to your boss? And if you decide to, what’s the best way to go about doing it? We asked psychologists and human resources (HR) professionals to share how to approach this topic. Also, we asked if you even should—in the most positive, productive way. Plus, check out these myths about mental health.

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You don’t always need to disclose a mental illness

First things first: “You should never feel obligated to share your personal struggles with an employer,” says Rhiannon Staples, chief marketing officer of HR technology firm Hibob. If your condition is under control and it’s not impacting your work, then there’s no pressing reason to tell anyone.

And an employer can’t ask you about your mental health before offering you a job (in most situations). “The ADA prohibits any inquiries into psychological impairments,” says Ones. “[At a certain point], various laws at the state level might require the disclosure of mental illness in applications for public safety jobs,” Ones adds. For example, the Federal Aviation Agency requires this for pilots.

But whether or not disclosing a mental illness after accepting a job is in your best interest depends on a few factors. These include the job description, the mental illness in question, and ultimately, whether the mental illness is well managed or affects life activities. This includes your ability to do your work, says Ones.

It’s always best to be proactive, though

You don’t need to talk to anyone at work about your mental health if you don’t want to. But experts suggest talking to your employer if you think mental illness may impact your ability to do your job.

For example, maybe you’re in the process of switching medications and know that some of the side effects may make you less efficient for a short period of time. Or maybe you can only get an appointment with your therapist midday, so you’ll have to disappear from work for a couple of hours each week to attend. (If your job is flexible and no one minds if you attend a doctor’s appointment during the workday, you may not even need to mention it.)

Whatever you anticipate the impact to be, “it’s better to get ahead of it rather than being asked what’s going on and being in a position where you’re punished or reprimanded for behavior that’s related to your mental health condition,” says psychotherapist Stephanie Roth Goldberg, a licensed clinical social worker psychotherapy and founder of Intuitive Psychotherapy NYC.

Your employer can’t help you if you don’t ask

A lot of people are afraid that disclosing a mental health condition will lead to stigmatization, especially at work. However, if you don’t bring it up with your employer, then they won’t be able to work with you on accommodations. These include adjusted work tasks or flexible hours, that can help you succeed.

Not only should your manager and HR department want to make adjustments that help both you and them, they’re required to by law.

The ADA forbids disability discrimination by employers and applies to employers with 15 or more employees, says employment attorney Thomas J. Mew, partner at Buckley Beal law firm in Atlanta. “Mental illness is typically considered a disability under the ADA,” says Mew.

According to the ADA National Network, this means (among other things) that disclosure is your choice, your employer can’t discriminate against you for having a mental illness, and you have a right to reasonable job accommodations (if you disclose and ask for them) unless this causes “undue hardship” for the employer.

Once you disclose, your employer can ask for medical documentation to confirm the mental illness. Make sure to have that readily available, says Staples. “For instance, if you have ADHD, bring in documentation that states your need for extra time, and from there set up next step processes with HR or your manager.” If you’re feeling anxious, try these therapists’ tips to cope.

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What counts as a “reasonable accommodation”

You may be wondering what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation.” This can include a modification of an adjustment in job duties that will allow a disabled employee to perform the essential functions at the workplace, according to Mew. “There is no one-size-fits-all reasonable accommodation because it depends on the nature of the job, the nature of the individual’s disability, and the employer’s size and resources.” (You can find more information on The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website.)

A “reasonable accommodation” may also not be the accommodation you request, Mew adds. “For example, if more than one reasonable accommodation would allow the employee an equal opportunity to perform his or her job duties, the employer can choose the less expensive option. Additionally, the employer is not required to eliminate essential job functions, quality standards, and similar items as part of a reasonable accommodation.”

An employer also may not need to provide accommodation if it would cause undue hardship or burden on the company. “In other words, would the accommodation impose a significant expense or other hardship for the employer based on the employer’s size, resources, or other aspects of the workplace or job in question?” Mew says.

This means that the specifics can be different depending on each case. But overall, the ADA is there to protect you. Furthermore, most companies want to work with you to make things better for you and for them. And they can’t do that if they don’t know you need assistance.

“In my experience, it is preferable to seek a reasonable accommodation, if needed, early on in the process so that the employee has the best chance to succeed,” says Mew.

The best person to tell

Goldberg suggests first talking with someone higher up than you—a manager or boss—that you have a good relationship with. “That way, they can advocate for you if you need time off or have to go to therapy during the day,” she says. Depending on your company, you might also have to get approvals through HR, which that confidant can help with. But that may not even be necessary. Your manager may just be able to give you permission and cut out an extra step.

Remember, your HR representative or department is ready to respond and assist, says Annie Griffin, HR, happiness and operations officer at Manifest New York. “It is entirely up to the particular employee who they choose to approach, but it’s important to bear in mind that other peers, co-workers, and acquaintances may not be equipped to professionally process or advise on the information you confide in them.”

Remember that your comfort is always the priority, says Griffin. “If you prefer that another individual is present when you talk to your employer, you have every right to invite them. If you want to talk outside of the office, just suggest it,” she says.

Need to recharge? This is why you should take a mental health day.

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You’re entitled to privacy

Remember, as an employee, you’re entitled to your privacy. You have the choice to keep your personal matters confidential. “Always ask to keep your business confidential, no matter who you reach out to about this,” Staples says. “You can expect your HR team and manager to keep your mental illness private,” she adds. It’s required as part of the ADA.

“These conversations should and must be kept private,” says Griffin. But, “in some circumstances, it can be beneficial for both HR and managers to be aware, in order to come up with the most comprehensive and productive plan forward,” she says.

When she believes that the course of action is to make a plan involving other managers, Griffin says she always asks the employee’s permission. Then, she explains to them how she will approach the situation. This is “so they have complete transparency and control over the communication of the situation,” she explains. “This assures that each party is aware and comfortable, and the affected employee knows that I have their back always, not only through emotional support but in actually making a difference.” Try these little habits to improve your mental health.

A mental health care provider can help guide you

If you’re trying to navigate a mental illness at work, opt to speak with your mental health care provider. “It’s something I talk to clients about all the time, and you can discuss with your mental health team how you want to position the specific disclosure or request,” says Goldberg. It can be immensely helpful to get support from a person who already is familiar with your circumstances, she adds.

If you don’t already have a mental health team in place? Goldberg suggests turning to a friend at work who you trust for advice. They have special knowledge of your company and higher-ups that a health care pro may not be intimately familiar with. This can be helpful if you’re trying to figure out who to tell and how they’ll react.

To find a mental health professional that can help you manage your mental illness, try searching the provider database on your health insurance website or visit Mental Health America for resources on where and how to find mental health care. And check out these 14 therapist-approved tips for finding a therapist you trust.