Does it ever make sense to let an employer know that you suffer from depression? I take an antidepressant daily. I’m not seeing a therapist. I would call it more of a functional depression, where I can live with it, but at times it can feel worse and I have to force myself to work. Does that make my depression something I should want to disclose to an employer? Would an employer think less of you, or perhaps not hire you at all, because you suffer from depression, even if it is protected by the law? When you’re currently employed, does it make sense to disclose after the fact? Would informing an employer that you have depression prevent them from firing you if you were finding it difficult to focus or concentrate? I have not disclosed this to my employer and do not include that information when I apply for new jobs. I don’t want the stigma of a disease that no one can see attached to me. If I did disclose after being hired, how would I go about doing that?
As a general rule, I’d only disclose a mental-health condition (or any health condition, for that matter) at work when you need to ask for a specific accommodation connected with it.
One day I hope we live in a world where you can disclose a mental-health struggle without stigma. Right now, though, it’s safer to proceed with caution, at least until you’re certain of how your manager will respond. There’s still too much risk of your employer discriminating against you in some way. My in-box is full of letters from people who disclosed a mental-health condition at work and afterward were treated differently in ways they didn’t want, like being treated as too delicate for certain projects or denied advancement opportunities that they were perfectly capable of.
To be fair, I also hear from people who disclose a mental-health struggle and it goes fine! They have a manager who gets it, the disclosure helps them obtain the accommodations they want (whether it’s time off for therapy appointments, more flexible hours when they’re fighting depression, and so forth), and it doesn’t have negative repercussions for them. So disclosing isn’t automatically or always a bad thing. But I still wouldn’t recommend disclosing just for the sake of it — save it for when there’s something specific you want to ask for.
And I want to be clear: That’s frustrating advice to give. Having open conversations about mental health is a good thing, and we need more of them. There’s nothing shameful about depression or other mental-health issues, and stigmatizing them does real damage. But we’re talking here about the professional world as it actually is, not the one I wish we lived in, and the reality we have to deal with is that people are often still weird about mental health in a way they’re not about physical health.
Moreover, waiting to disclose until there’s something specific you want to ask for isn’t just about avoiding potential backlash. It’s also because there’s not really anything your manager can do with the info unless you’re requesting a specific accommodation. And if you share your mental-health struggles without asking for something concrete, your manager may assume you want her to take some sort of action — and may go looking for ways to help that don’t line up with anything you’d actually want (like taking you off a project she assumes will be too stressful).
Now let’s talk about the law. In the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against you — including not hiring you, firing you, or not giving you the same professional opportunities they give others — simply because you have a mental-health condition. If your condition is protected by the ADA, the law requires your employer to work with you to find reasonable accommodations to help you do your job, such as changing your work schedule, providing extra time on assignments, or whatever might help you perform your job, as long as it doesn’t create “undue hardship” for your employer. (The law defines “undue hardship” pretty narrowly. It can’t just be your boss saying, “Eh, that sounds like a pain.”) To decide you were unfit for your job because of your mental health, your employer would need to have objective evidence that you were unable to perform the essential functions of your position, even with reasonable accommodations.
It’s important to know, though, that not everyone is covered by the ADA. The law only applies to employers with 15 or more employees, and your condition needs to “substantially limit one or more major life activities,” which include interacting with others, communicating, eating, sleeping, caring for yourself, and regulating your thoughts. (The ADA doesn’t list specific conditions it covers — instead focusing on how severe the effects of those conditions are — but depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other common mental-health disorders often do fall under its protection.) The ADA also protects you if you are perceived as having such an impairment, whether or not you actually do. Some state laws provide additional protections as well.
If you do decide to ask for accommodations at some point, it usually makes sense to start with your HR department, rather than your direct manager (especially if you expect your manager to be resistant), because HR staff are generally trained in disability law, while individual managers often aren’t. Send an email with the subject line “Request for Accommodations Under the Americans with Disabilities Act” so that it’s clear what you’re asking for. Your company might ask you to submit a letter from your doctor to document that you have a health condition that requires an accommodation, but you and your doctor shouldn’t need to disclose your specific diagnosis when doing that.
From there, the law requires your employer to enter into an interactive process with you to determine what accommodations would work. They’re allowed to propose a different solution than the one you suggested, but if their proposal won’t work, you’re allowed to explain why and ask for something else. The process sometimes includes a few rounds of “We can’t do X because of Y, but how about Z?” They’re also allowed to choose a solution that’s easier or less expensive for them to provide if it will still meet your needs. If you’re not sure what specific accommodations to ask for, the Job Accommodation Network has an enormous list of potential accommodations for various disabilities and is worth checking out.
But know that you never need to disclose a health condition if you don’t want to. And if there’s nothing specific you want to ask for, in most cases the safer option is hold off until/unless that changes. I’m sorry that’s the case, and I hope one day it won’t be something people need to worry about.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.