When my last boss caught me passed out at my desk due to sleep deprivation, the most prevalent symptom of my depressive-anxiety disorder, I knew it was time to have a difficult but necessary conversation.
It was my first full-time job out of college. I was mortified because I had long feared my depression would cause me to struggle to work normal hours. Because my sleep was constantly disrupted and low-quality, arriving at work by 9 a.m. became a trial. Getting out of bed took an hour because the exhaustion felt like iron bars wrapped around me, bolted into my mattress.
I wanted to keep the job and produce great work without succumbing to sleep deprivation, so I decided to tell my boss about the depression and suggest a special schedule: coming to work later, staying later and working some extra hours when I returned home and on the weekend.
Before I approached him at the end of the day, I was sweating and my breathing was stilted from the dread of what might go wrong. Would he assume I was asking for an excuse to sleep in and receive special treatment? Maybe he would feel uncomfortable working next to someone with mental illness. Did he believe depression was a real illness? Would he reject my proposal and fire me?
I thought about what I would do if I lost my job, whether my career as a writer would recover. My chest got tight as I imagined begging my parents for money and what I would say when they asked why.
Then I shook my head and took a deep breath, hoping it would displace these anxieties long enough for me to be composed while I spoke with my boss. I needed to do this. My sleep was not improving fast enough to wait. I could either have this conversation now or risk him getting fed up with my unexplained tardiness and firing me.
He was shocked at first, he told me when I asked about the experience during a recent phone call.
"Most people don't share that kind of stuff," he said. "I appreciated the honesty."
He accepted my proposal, saying he wanted to accommodate me so I could continue producing great work. For the rest of my life, I will be grateful for his understanding.
The discussion also strengthened our working relationship. He now works as the content director for a customer relationship management software company, but we still keep up and work together on occasion. Opening up about my mental illness made this possible.
This experience -- and others along the way -- empowered me to the point where I now tell my stories of coping with mental illness as part of my career (this isn't the only article I've mentioned it in). I discussed my depression and therapy during the application and interview for my current job working at Talkspace, an online therapy company that helps people who want to work on their mental health and lead happier lives. There are employers who would not to hire me because of this, but I've realized I don't want to work with intolerant people.
Why Most People Don't Talk About Their Mental Illness At the Workplace
If we lived in a stigma-free world, my experience of acceptance in the workplace would be common. I would not be incredibly lucky to have taken these risks and gained rather than lost.
The anonymous responses I received when I looked for different perspectives and stories of opening up about mental illness at the workplace reminded me of this. Most people on a popular forum I joined, including several therapists, advised against discussing mental illness among co-workers and supervisors, either under any circumstance or unless absolutely necessary.
"I personally do not tell my employer I suffer from depression," one woman said. "I grew up when it was essentially Not Done to admit to any sort of mental illness, and if you did admit to it one of your employment prospects would disappear."
Regardless of age, the majority of respondents shared her attitude.
"There is no reason they need to know," a younger man said. "I had one boss who found out once and it didn't end well. I had to find another job."
One therapist said disclosing this information, especially in the workplace, was tantamount to becoming a "martyr."
"You are in no position to be a poster boy for anything right now," he told one anonymous young man who was considering telling his employer about his bipolar disorder.
The cowardice and condemnation in this thread makes me furious, especially because therapists offered some of this advice. Even if you feel you are looking out for them, it is wrong to shame someone into staying silent about their mental illness. There are reasons people need to know, and discussing it does not make you a "martyr" or a "poster boy."
The young man in the thread simply wanted to be himself, his whole self.
"I feel that my bipolarity is part of who I am and to sanitize my image in front of everyone seems wrong," he said. "This condition has taught me to overcome flaws in myself."
Why I Stand By My Choice
We spend most of our lives at work, so how can we battle the stigma attached to mental illness if we are too afraid to mention it at the office?
Stigma comes from fear, and fear is often a result of misunderstanding something. When I talk about mental illness at the workplace, co-workers see I am equally competent and hardworking despite symptoms affecting my schedule. I have even met employers who understand some of my greatest strengths as an employee stem from my background dealing with depression and anxiety.
It's a big part of who I am and I take pride in it, so feeling free to mention it at work makes me more comfortable and, ultimately, a better employee.