What Happens When People Reveal Their Mental Illness to Their Boss?

Employees with mental illness deserve a chance to prove they can continue contributing to their company and work in a stigma-free environment. It can be a burden for employers, but they have a duty to support the employee and keep their information confidential.
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Portrait of tired woman touching her head
Portrait of tired woman touching her head

This is the second part in a series about revealing mental illness at the workplace. The first part, "What Happened When I Told My Boss I Was Struggling With Mental Illness," tells my story.

For some employees, telling their boss or co-workers they struggled with mental illness was one of the best career decisions they made. For others it was the beginning of a short path toward being fired or forced to resign.

When employees deal with mental illness, they sometimes need to tell their boss or co-workers so they can work out a special arrangement such as different hours or time off. The discussion also provides them the opportunity to explain symptoms that might affect their performance or behavior around the office. Sometimes they only want to open up to co-workers to bond and deepen their working relationship.

Because of the stigma of mental illness, people often assume this can only have negative consequences for employees. The risk, however, is better than waiting for the burden to destroy their career.

It's not as black and white as keeping the job or getting fired. The stories in this article show a range of outcomes of disclosing mental health conditions in the workplace.

The Employee Keeps the Job, But It's More Complicated Than That

Based on the stories collected for this article, here are some of the positive outcomes and ways bosses will support employees with mental illness:

  • Allowing short periods of time off with pay
  • Allowing long periods of time off without pay but guaranteeing job security
  • Creating a new position with hours and tasks the employee can handle
  • The conversation can make co-workers and employers closer

Even when these positive outcomes happen, the situation isn't perfect or free of stress.

When one of her employees took a long leave for treatment at a mental health facility, Accessibility Partners Head of Business Development Dana Marlowe decided to keep the job open for her.

"She lost us money, and stressed out a lot of her fellow employees who had to pick up the slack," Marlowe said. "This wasn't a shining moment for our employee, but I stacked it against four years of great job performance."

The transition was rough at times, but the employee eventually regained her normal schedule and made Marlowe happy she allowed her to stay.

Gossiping Spreads and Creates a Hostile Work Environment

Author Anita Miranda confided in her supervisor when she was having trouble with her PTSD. She then caught her supervisor spreading false information about the situation. This ultimately lead to a hostile work environment that forced her to leave.

"My therapist told me they would be easier on me and laws would protect me," Miranda said. "Instead they used it against me."

One of the biggest risks in disclosing mental illness to a supervisors is the possibility they will not keep the information confidential. When co-workers learn about the mental health condition, they might take the opportunity to create a hostile work environment rather than being supportive.

They Seem to Accept It, But Do They Really?

When employees disclose their mental health conditions, employers who have a problem with the situation will most likely not immediately fire them. These employers usually wait a few months to see how symptoms affect the employee's performance.

Malicious employers lie to the employee, telling him or her they can accommodate the condition when they actually intend to fire them. Then they wait a few months so they can terminate or force out the employee without it seeming like the mental illness was the reason.

When veteran David Pfister told his superior officers he was dealing with severe mental health conditions, they told him they supported him. This only lasted a few months, though.

"After I wasn't 'fixed' in that time I was basically a problem they wanted to get rid of," Pfister said.

Bosses pressured him to leave, according to Pfister. The leadership believed he was weak and a bad example for the people he was in charge of, he said. After they stripped his rank, he left.

What Employees and Employers Should Take Away

Employees with mental illness deserve a chance to prove they can continue contributing to their company and work in a stigma-free environment. It can be a burden for employers, but they have a duty to support the employee and keep their information confidential.

"Being a good employer is about fostering win-win situations for the company and the valuable employees who work there," said Netfloor USA President Ryan Hulland. "In many cases those with mental illnesses can not only function as well as others, but often have unique talents and capabilities that an employer would be foolish to overlook."

If more employers take on this attitude, the positive stories in this piece can become more common than the negative ones.

We're focusing on mental illness and the workplace in honor of Mental Health Month. If you have a story or blog you'd like to share about wellbeing at work, please email strongertogether@huffingtonpost.com.

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