This is Samantha guest posting today on mental health in the workplace. If you have received a mental health diagnosis, whether it was anxiety or schizophrenia, you have most likely faced some tough calls when it came to opening up about your mental illness in your place of employment. Not everyone is comfortable when it comes to opening up about this portion of their life, and they keep their secret guarded at all costs.
It took me years – and creating my own mental health blog – before I felt comfortable enough to share my own mental health diagnoses with an employer. Given my erratic behavior on occasions while at work, I would occasionally have to come to terms with the fact that I needed to explain some of what was going on with my mental health in the workplace. Otherwise I feared termination from a position that I so desperately needed to keep. Especially if I wanted to survive while being an adult out in the real world, with real bills to pay.
The Stigma of Mental Health in the Workplace
The mental health stigma is real and it’s misunderstood. So I am not here to tell you that you need to be honest with your employer about your mental health in the workplace. That alone is your choice, and only your choice to make. Don’t ever let anyone force you into sharing sensitive personal information about yourself unless you are 100 percent comfortable with disclosing it. What I can offer you are some of the pros and cons of telling or not telling your place of employment about your mental health based on my own experiences.
I have had times when revealing my true self worked out being beneficial, while other instances of being open about it led to me ultimately being treated unfairly along with feeling helplessly judged and targeted by my peers.
Pro: If You Suffer from Continuous Mood Shifts
If you are diagnosed with a form of bipolar disorder, you will understand where this one is coming from perhaps more than most. If you live with constant mood shifts, going from manic highs to depressive lows, there is always the likelihood of your employer picking up on your mood changes more than you may realize. When you feel that sometimes your behavior may become a bit erratic or unpredictable, it is usually better to communicate with your boss without giving away too much. You want to be able to tell them the bare minimum while still being as honest as possible.
Opening up in this way enables your employer to understand that you are not on drugs and chemical imbalance in your brain is causing the mood shifts. I have received accusations of being “high” on the job because of manic ups where my behavior was not quite right compared to how tame I usually was. I couldn’t even tell you how many times I have been accused of being under the influence anymore when it was nothing more than a mere mood disruption.
Pro: When Medication Changes Wear You Down
Some people are lucky enough to find solace in the first psychiatric medication that they try. If you are anything like me, you are not that lucky and have been on the pharmaceutical merry-go-round. With each new medication, there are bound to be some trial and error. New meds can cause unpleasant side effects until a person becomes familiar with them. Often, the medications on the market for mental health treatments tend to cause drowsiness or fatigue.
There have been countless times where I was busted dozing off on the clock. It can get to the point where no matter where you are, you feel the sudden urge to lie down and take a 15-minute snooze under your desk.
To avoid serious repercussions or even termination from dealing with the side effects of a new medication, it is often better for you to be honest about starting something new. When it comes to medications, you don’t even have to disclose what they are or what they are for unless you want to. However, for certain positions, you may be mandated to discuss what you are taking for safety reasons. Typically, this information on mental health in the workplace goes no further than your HR department or immediate supervisor. You should also discuss the change if you believe the medication will severely impact how well you perform on the job.
At one place of employment, I had to be honest about being on lithium because my tremor was so bad I could no longer give patients injections. Since I was a medical assistant, it was a job requirement. Luckily for me, the office manager was more than understanding and even allowed me time off when I went through a medication change. Discussing mental health in the workplace doesn’t have to be a negative experience.
Pro: Overflowing Appointment Books
If you work a 9 to 5 job, there is a good chance that you have to squeeze in doctor’s appointments without disrupting work. Doing so can be very challenging for some people since, typically, most doctor’s offices also have the same 9 to 5 business hours. Because of this, you may have to let your boss know that you will either be in early or later than normal to accommodate your appointments. By extra appointments, I am referring to talk therapy or seeing a psychiatrist. Therapy can be weekly, biweekly, or even monthly. That is already one to four appointments to try to attend without missing too much work.
Informing your employer that you need these appointments can open up a more lax schedule. You can also get additional understanding from the person who signs your paycheck. Many companies will help work out a more accommodating schedule when necessary. You will never know how your employer responds to a discussion on mental health in the workplace unless you speak up. Discuss your scheduling struggles and trying to maintain appointments.
Pro: Walking Away for a Moment
Everyone has bad days. But not everyone gets the opportunity to walk away from a stressful or maddening situation at work. Being an adult is stressful and produces anxiety all on its own. There are heaps of obstacles and challenges that we have to face daily. Sadly, people with mental health disorders often fluster easier than someone without one.
If you ever start to feel close to your breaking point, it is time to walk away for a moment. Sometimes, an employer unaware of your struggles won’t understand why you are taking things much harder then Jack or Sarah. If you know that you will need to walk away during stressful times, consider opening up to your boss. Admit that you need a little extra time now and then.
Con: Hearing You are Not Competent Enough
Once when I told a boss why my moods were out of whack the response was this. I was “just another crazy leading the crazy.” And that I wasn’t competent enough to perform my job. So, to keep my position I had to work twice as hard as most people. Yes, there are policies against discrimination, but you have to be able to prove that it was discrimination. That is where things can get a bit sticky. Hearing I couldn’t handle my job was a slap in the face. It stung! There is always going to be someone who is the least understanding out of the bunch regarding mental health in the workplace.
Con: This is Not a Judgement Free Zone
No matter what company policies tell you, everywhere you go has the potential to be a judgment fueled zone. If you decide to open up about your mental health, not everyone is going to be so kind about it. Not everyone will be sympathetic and understanding. And not everyone will keep what you tell them just between the two of you. Companies can be competitive when it comes to different people applying for promotions or transfers to other departments. There is always going to be someone who wants to own what you currently have.
This isn’t just referring to sharing your medical history, but also about sharing little details about yourself. You talk to one person about a party and then hear rumors you’re the “company alcoholic.”
Always be careful when sharing personal information because not everyone is looking to be your friend. Try to keep personal life discussions to a minimum. Only share what you need to, with who you need to. That’s it! I know this sounds harsh. But the less you share, the fewer chances of being judged at work on a personal level. If only it hadn’t taken me over 15 years to realize this, I might have lasted longer at certain companies.
Con: The Stigma is Real
When you choose to talk about your mental health in the workplace, the reaction is unpredictable. There are still people who believe that mental illness isn’t real. Some people believe you can stop yourself from feeling anxious or blue if you wanted to. These people are often:
- Had bad experiences talking about mental health, or
- Never had bouts of depression or anxiety, nor do they know anyone who has
Let’s say you work in the healthcare field, caring for special needs people, for example. Only to find out your favorite co-worker believes that people with mental health conditions act out for attention. You truly can never tell who will and who won’t make your situation worse. And it would be because of their closed mindedness and biased opinions. You may never know why a person adds more negativity to the mental health stigma.
Do you feel like you may need to bring your mental health up to your employer? Create your own pros and cons list first. Your situation may be very different from my own. Be very clear and honest with not only yourself but also with your employer. In my own experience, the benefits of being honest greatly outweigh the risks of sharing this type of information.
What are your thoughts on mental health in the workplace?
Samantha Steiner is a freelance writer, blogger, and mental health advocate who runs and manages her own mental health blog. She has dabbled in different areas in the medical field until a career change. Her mental health led her back to writing where she can now offer help to others who struggle with mental health and addictions issues through her blog. Samantha lives in Pennsylvania, USA with her furbaby, Buddy.