Mental Health in the Workplace: What to Say to Your Boss about Your Treatment Plan

One out of five adults in the U.S. has a mental illness in any given year. This means that mental illness in the workplace is not uncommon. If you struggle with depression, anxiety disorders, a personality disorder, or any other mental illness that requires long-term or residential treatment, you have a right to get time from work to do so. Before talking to your boss about your treatment plans and any time you need for medical leave, know your rights under the law, talk to your therapist about how to start the conversation, and make sure you know what you want to say and how to say it.

Deciding if or how to disclose a mental illness at work is tricky. It’s tiring to pretend all the time, to act as if you don’t struggle sometimes. Disclosing means you can seek protections under the law and the accommodations you need to get treatment.

And yet, telling your boss about your mental health and need for treatment can lead to being stigmatized or even discriminated against on the job. Take this step carefully, but understand that you do have a right to get the treatment you need.

Disclosing Mental Illness – Pros and Cons

Before you decide if or how you want to tell your employer about your plans for treatment, you must decide if you will tell them at all. You do not have to disclose that you have a mental illness, and there are some upsides and downsides to doing so.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects people with disabilities from discrimination in the workplace. The law includes psychiatric disabilities and mental impairments, which includes several mental or psychological disorders that impair or limit one or more major life activities. For instance, if you have been diagnosed with depression and it impairs your ability to concentrate on a task for a long period of time, this can be considered a disability by the ADA.

If you want to benefit from the law and be entitled to accommodations at work— for instance, a longer amount of time to work on a project because it is difficult for you to concentrate—you will need to tell your employer that you have depression and a resulting disability.

Disclosure can help you benefit from the protection of the ADA, but there are some cons to letting a boss know you have a mental illness that seriously impacts your life. There is still an unfortunate amount of stigma attached to mental illness, and you may fear that you will be treated differently at work if you disclose. You may miss out on opportunities for new positions or advancement if your boss erroneously thinks you can’t do the work.

Not all employers will stigmatize workers who disclose mental illness. Many are understanding, accommodating, and kind. If you have a boss like this, disclosure could actually benefit you. It can be a relief to let those around you know about what you are experiencing. Faking a good mood or pretending to be fine all day is exhausting, and you may get a great sense of freedom from disclosing and being able to be yourself more of the time.

How to Disclose Mental Illness at Work

It’s important to understand that if you do choose to tell your employer about your mental illness that you know what your rights are under the law. For instance, if you are requesting an accommodation, your employer may request medical documentation. However, your boss does not have a right to share that medical information about your disability with anyone else. It’s up to you to decide who, if anyone other than your boss, will know about your mental illness.

Also, when disclosing information so that you can request an accommodation, you are not required to tell your boss everything. You can focus only on the specific accommodation and why you need it. You do not have to go into details about what your mental illness is or the symptoms you experience. Your employer may request documentation to prove your request is valid.

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Tips for Talking to Your Boss About Treatment

If your mental illness has become severe enough that you need time off for treatment, you may have no choice but to disclose it to your boss. To get the required leave time, you may need to explain your situation so you can claim that you need a reasonable accommodation as allowed under the ADA. Here are some tips to get the discussion about your treatment started:

1. Know Your Rights.

When you know what your rights are under the law, you will be more informed in conversations with your boss and less able to be dissuaded from trying to take needed time away from work. According to the ADA, you have a right to reasonable accommodations for a disability. In other words, if it won’t cause your employer undue hardship to have a month or two off for treatment, you are entitled to that leave.

The Family Medical Leave Act is another law that ensures you can get time off for mental health treatment. It gives you the right to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for an illness or to care for a family member. You may use accrued paid leave or extra unpaid leave time to ensure you have the time needed from work to get appropriate treatment and still have your job when you return.

2. Prepare What to Say in Advance.

This can be a difficult conversation and it’s easy to bungle. Get it wrong and your boss may come away from the conversation with a poor understanding of what your needs are and what the purpose of your treatment is. Plan out a script for what you’ll say—and what you expect your employer might say and ask. Work with someone you trust, like your partner or a good friend, to practice. Being ready with a clear idea of your thoughts and what your boss needs to know will help you make your point and have a more productive conversation.

3. Bring In Your Therapist or Doctor If Needed.

It may be much easier for you to let the professionals speak for you. If you fear you are unable to clearly explain the treatment you’ll be getting and why it’s important, let your psychiatrist, therapist, or other medical or mental health professional contact your boss. If you are already signed up for treatment at a residential facility or have been evaluated by one, they can explain to your employer how long the program is and why you need time away from work for it.

4. Going Back to Work After Treatment

Sometimes, asking for medical leave for mental health treatment is easier than facing your boss and co-workers upon your return. Keep in mind that your boss does not have a right to tell other employees about your disability or why you took a leave. Before you return to work, decide if you will tell others.

Either way, be prepared to answer some tough questions. If you do want to disclose to your co-workers that you have undergone treatment for a mental illness, plan exactly how much you want to tell and what details you prefer to leave out. While you are in treatment, your therapists can work with you to help you figure out how to have these conversations in ways that are productive but also make you feel comfortable and that respect your privacy.

As long as you know what your rights are and you have decided what degree of disclosure will make you comfortable in your workplace, talking to your boss about leave for treatment should go smoothly. Don’t be afraid to bring in your psychiatrist or therapist if necessary. They can help you make this conversation be more positive and productive.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles-based programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.