By Danielle Keenan-Miller, Ph.D.
You may have recently read the story of Madalyn Parker, who emailed her boss to let him know she was going to take some days off to attend to her own mental health. Her boss, Ben Congleton, was not only supportive of her in his return email, but responded to reaffirm the “importance of using sick days for mental health” and praised her as an example for others to follow. The story quickly went viral¹, with many people lauding both Madalyn and Ben for being willing to tackle stigma and model the importance of mental health. Similarly, author and filmmaker Sherman Alexi recently went public about the mental health problems that caused him to cancel the second half of his book tour (see his full post here). Stories like these might have you wondering whether you can and should be open about mental health concerns in your own workplace. I was very happy to be a guest on KPCC’s AirTalk with Larry Mantle (see this link) this week to address that very question.
Depression-related work impairment is much more common than you might think. According to the World Health Organization², depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Workers in the US lose 200 million workdays per year because of depression.³ However, it’s still relatively rare for workers to be upfront with their employers about being depressed. Stigma, fear of being seen as incompetent, or shame leads some workers to instead couch their problems in more physical terms, or even to outright lie about why they are missing work.
I hope that stories like those of Madalyn and Sherman are helping to break down some of the stigma around acknowledging depression, but whether or not to be open with an employer is a very personal decision. I suggest that anyone considering being open with their employer about depression or other mental health concerns asks themselves these three important questions:
How comfortable are you with being public about your mental health struggles? If you’re still in the early stages of accepting or naming your own difficulties, it might be challenging to handle the way that people react to this information. I recommend waiting until you feel confident about your ability to manage emotionally if you get a negative reaction.
What do you hope to achieve by telling your boss or co-workers? For some people, the decision to disclose might be driven mostly by wanting to be authentic or to encourage openness about mental health in your workplace. For others, telling an employer may be linked to a need for accommodations of some kind-- reduced workload for a period of time, taking time away from work to seek treatment, or a shift in hours to accommodate the side effects of medication. Understanding what you want should inform who you tell and how you go about telling them. Employers may not know intuitively how to support you, so being clear about your reasoning and any related requests is helpful.
What is the likelihood that you’ll get a good response from your work community? Companies vary widely in terms of their culture around mental health issues. You may not always know in advance how people will react (in some cases, you might be pleasantly surprised!), but there are some clues you can look for: Does your employer have an Employee Assistance Program dedicated to helping workers with mental health concerns? How do they treat other instances in which people need time off for physical health reasons, grief, or personal events? Can they reasonably provide the types of accommodations you are hoping for? To what extent is there a culture around supporting one another as whole people rather than just employees?
You can use this link to listen to the full story on KPPC’s Air Talk, including some very powerful personal stories from callers.
[3} Leopold RS. A Year in the Life of a Million American Workers. New York, New York: MetLife Disability Group; 2001.