It’s estimated that over 16 million adults in the US experience major depressive episodes. And considering a majority of these adults also hold jobs, more thorough employee-employer communication is long overdue.
Holding a job while living with depression can be a complex, nuanced and challenging experience. Add to that the task of speaking to your employer about it, and something that is already difficult can veer towards impossible. Especially considering the widespread stigmamental illness holds in our culture.
In that context, talking to your HR department and/or your supervisor is not something that either party can afford to take lightly, especially when it comes to establishing legal accommodations that can help you accomplish your work like the superstar you are.
Director of the American Disability Act National Network, Dr. Kurt Johnson, puts it this way: “Making decisions about disclosing your mental health status to employers is always tricky. You may want to disclose just because you want it ‘on the table,’ but some people will worry about potential stigma,” he says.
“From a legal perspective, you do not need to disclose unless you want an accommodation under ADA. If you want an accommodation such as a modified work schedule, you should go to HR rather than your boss, unless it is a smaller organization, in which case, your boss is it.”
If and when you need to come to your employer, here are some best practices of how to go about it:
Feeling anxious about this scenario is totally normal. You may be scared, but it’s essential to get organized. Yes, it is good to be a human with human responses, but sometimes you need to just get the words out, and organizing your thoughts and needs in advance will help you to not skip over anything important.
I recently had to request a schedule accommodation from my new job, to attend a weekly 15-hour outpatient program. I was terrified at the thought of having to talk to my boss or HR. I didn’t know how they would take it. I didn’t know if they would think this would be my pattern, or that I was weak, or incompetent, or fragile.
So, I organized. I made a printable schedule, showing when I needed to be in my program and when I would be at work—highlighted, color coded and all. Crucially, I showed that I would be able to accomplish all of my work hours and more.
HR or supervisor?
This can be tricky, and it is very different for different companies. HR is the preferable place to go, because implicit bias around mental health can creep into even the most understanding of supervisors. HR can keep documentation and fight for you with legal resources. HR sees the request for accommodations as a legal situation under the ADA, and cannot impact your direct day-to-day interactions, aside from making sure accommodations are met.
However, in the case of smaller companies, come forward with as little personal detail as possible, and do your best to present it as a health condition—plain and simple. ‘Cause it is.
Know your rights
Did you know that invisible disabilities are included in the American Disability Act? It is important to know your rights and to learn that changes in schedule, work load, or other necessary modifications needed for your diagnosis because you can be considered for “reasonable accommodations.” While you may not refer to your diagnosis as a disability, because that’s how it’s defined in the ADA, it can be helpful here.)
Your HR department or supervisor may not agree that some accommodations are reasonable with your specific job requirements and duties, however, it is important to know that this is at least an option and it can serve as a starting point for the discussion. It’s good to have a paper trail, so I suggest following up an in-person initial discussion with a brief overview of what you talked about and your requests.
You can learn more about the ADA here. Knowing my rights before I attend my meeting put the law on my side, which gave me the confidence to know I deserved support for my legitimate mental health needs.
Even though you may not feelconfident, it’s important to cultivate that mindset. Keep your emotions in check. This is likely going to be difficult, but that’s OK. If you cry in the middle of disclosing, so what? You are human. You are doing a hard thing.
Prior to meeting with your supervisor or HR do a little pump-up routine. I know, I know—sounds dumb. But it helps. Dance around to Beyonce’s “Grown Woman,” do a power pose in the bathroom, or a downward facing dog. Anything that gives you life. Then, go in like the professional you are and state your case. Present your organized bullet points as if this is a presentation to a big client.
You stood up for your rights. You showed you were competent in a time you felt it the least. You broke stigma by showing that living with a mental health condition does not hold you back. Now, if you feel like it, go enjoy a nice long Netflix binge under the covers before getting back to work tomorrow—you deserve it.
If you or someone you know is in need of mental health assistance, visit this siteororthis sitefor access to resources.
Linea Johnson is a mental-health rights activist and the author of Perfect Chaos: A Daughter’s Journey to Survive Bipolar, a Mother’s Struggle to Save Her