Should You Ever Tell Your Boss You Have Depression?

Mental health challenges can seriously impact your ability to get work done and deserve accommodations. Here's how to get them.
Disclosing a mental health condition to a manager can be tricky to navigate.
Westend61 via Getty Images
Disclosing a mental health condition to a manager can be tricky to navigate.

Depression is a mental health condition that affects millions of people every day. One in five people reported having been diagnosed with depression at some point in their life, according to a 2023 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And what you carry inside you at home can follow you to work, too.

“A lot of the times people just view depression as sadness, and they don’t necessarily understand how all of the other symptoms also negatively impact your work,” said Nevada-based clinical psychologist Tanisha Ranger. She cited insomnia, memory problems, low concentration and motivation, and increased irritability as some of the symptoms that could be affecting your capacity to work under depression.

In an ideal world, you could have an open line of communication with your boss about the internal factors that are affecting your ability to get work done.

“The world I want us all to live in is one where sharing that you’re depressed would simply get you whatever support you need at work,” said psychologist and career coach Lauren Appio. “That could be practical support, like taking time off, adjusting your schedule to accommodate treatment, or making changes to your workload. Even simple acknowledgements can be meaningful: It always helps to get some grace and understanding if you’ve fallen behind on your email, for example.”

Unfortunately, for too many of us, we don’t work under those ideal conditions. Stigma against mental health struggles is still very real. Only 49% of respondents described their experience of talking about mental health at work as positive, according to a 2021 study from nonprofit Mind Share Partners.

Sometimes, though, employees do not have a choice but to disclose.

“Employees with a mental illness may need to disclose their condition in order to receive needed accommodations. Research also suggests disclosure can lead to greater feelings of authenticity and less energy spent thinking about whether to disclose or not at work,” said Auburn University management professor Jaclyn Koopmann, who has published research on mental illness and work.

That’s why it’s so critical to be strategic about if, when and how to disclose your depression to your boss. Here’s how:

Start by dropping hints to colleagues you feel safe around.

The main reason you may want to disclose your mental health condition with your boss is if it’s impacting your work and you need an accommodation. Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, you may be eligible for reasonable work accommodations like permission to work from home, an altered shift schedule, or a quiet office space if your condition qualifies.

But backlash to disclosing a mental health struggle is still common, regardless of the law being on your side.

“Generally speaking, disclosure research shows that employees revealing that they have a mental illness may risk less social acceptance and inclusion from co-workers and supervisors,” Koopmann said. In a study published in the Academy of Management journal, Koopmann and her fellow researchers found that employees commonly test the waters before deciding to share more about their mental health challenges because of this.

“Employees might partially disclose, not revealing fully that they have a diagnosed condition, or drop hints to see how co-workers might react to a fuller disclosure,” Koopmann said.

Familiarize yourself with your workplace’s resources and observe how your boss talks about mental health.

Beyond dropping hints to colleagues, observe if your workplace has clear guidelines for accessing mental health-related accommodations and if colleagues have been supported when they sought these accommodations, Appio suggested.

You may also want to observe whether your boss is modeling care and consideration for their own mental health.

“A boss who speaks openly about their own mental health, takes mental health days, and makes full use of any needed accommodations or benefits like taking their full parental leave, etc. ― in other words, who walks the walk ― may also be more trustworthy,” Appio said.

Consider also how your boss has reacted to colleagues who have needed accommodations for other reasons, like pregnancy, elder care or bereavement, Appio said.

“A boss who is generally supportive and responsive in these instances is more likely to be respectful and receptive to an employee disclosing depression,” she said. “But if they treat these needs as trivial, inconvenient and frustrating, you can be pretty sure that they aren’t going to be super understanding, or worse, actively discriminatory.”

Observe how your manager talks about their own mental health.
SDI Productions via Getty Images
Observe how your manager talks about their own mental health.

If you choose to share with your boss, go in with solutions.

Ultimately, you know yourself best and how your depression is affecting your workday.

When you talk with your boss, you want to be able to share what proposed solutions would help you do your work instead of making your boss guess at what you need.

To do that, reflect on what duties are required for the job and if there are accommodations that could make it easier, or if there are parts of the job you can no longer perform at this time, Ranger suggested.

“Is there something you need that you can’t make happen on your own?” Ranger said you can ask yourself. When you are disclosing, frame the accommodation as something that will help you stay a productive, engaged employee.

Because of the stigmas associated with mental health, “it’s in your best interest to keep mentioning that ‘I would like to be able to perform at my optimal levels of productivity, and here are some things that I might need to be able to do that,’” Ranger said.

You also don’t necessarily need to disclose that your depression is the reason you need an informal accommodation like a flexible workday.

“You can start small with little things that generally don’t impact the workplace in a negative way without saying, ‘It’s because of my depression.’ Start there,” Ranger advised.

“Some places will respect your privacy if you keep your request general, like: ‘I need an accommodation for a medical issue,’ or, ‘I’d like to request a medical leave.’ That can be a good way to start the conversation and see if more information is requested,” Appio said.

“From there, you could speak with your therapist, psychiatrist or other provider who would be sharing that documentation about what information you are comfortable and not comfortable with them disclosing,” she added.

If your boss is not a safe person to confide in, there are still ways to get what you need.

If your boss would not be a good person to share your request with, you can also try taking your accommodation request to human resources or a different manager, but it’s not guaranteed that the information will be kept private, Appio said.

It also helps to keep a paper trail of your informal or formal requests, so that you can point back to documentation if necessary.

“Any request for mental health accommodations should be made in writing. An easy way to do this is to send a follow-up email recapping any conversation you have with your boss or HR,” Appio said.

And ultimately, if you’re unable to get any accommodations and your workload is exacerbating your depression, you may need to exit the job to to protect your mental health, Ranger said.

“Obviously that’s a last resort, but it has to be on the table, because your well-being is your primary directive,” Ranger said.


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