Should I tell my boss about my mental health issue?

Finding and keeping a job has never been easy. So you if have a mental health problem, should you ever tell your boss? And if so, when? After your probationary period? When she finds you crying in the stationery room? At your first interview? And then there is the possibility of discrimination from colleagues.

Jonathan Naess, Head of Partnerships at Mental Health at Work, described disclosing a mental health issue to colleagues as similar to the ‘coming out’ journeys made by members of the LGBT community.

“LGBT politics in the workplace has made such great progress in the last few years. Published figures show that job satisfaction among people who have come out on their LGBT status show greater loyalty, more engagement and greater productivity, which comes when you are able to be open and honest about who you are.

“The model assumption is that individuals with mental health problems have to be off work is something that we are moving away from. It is a paradigm shift similar to the one for people with musculoskeletal problems where now we encourage them to get up and be active rather than lying in bed to recover.”

Making the decision to come out about your mental health is not an easy one. Dr Claire Henderson, Senior Clinical Lecturer at King’s College, spoke to a breakfast briefing for Mental Health at Work about a research project, CORAL – standing for COnceal or ReveAL – which is a decision aid to help people who are considering disclosing to an employer. The basis is interviews with individuals on their experiences of disclosure in addition to a literature review.

Figures from 2014, surveying mental health service users, showed 17% of them experienced discrimination in finding a job and 16% felt the same about keeping one. 41% stopped themselves from looking for work as they anticipated discrimination.

Dr Henderson spoke of feedback from an interviewee who said, “I got an interview. I said to her that I suffered with mental illness but it’s clearing up now and I am feeling a lot better than what I was, I can work. And when I told her that you could see … her face just dropped, it was like she was happy to employ me up until that point.”

Many employers don’t seem to realise that some mental health conditions are included in the Equality Act of 2010, protecting everybody from discrimination in the workplace and the many big steps made in race, gender and disability equality haven’t been made with mental wellness. The requirement for ‘reasonable adjustments’ also applies to mental health.

Dr Henderson said, “It is very easy to misinterpret how people are behaving in a stressful workplace situation because of a mental health problem. Similarly, if someone goes off sick, it is often assumed that it is a mental health problem that has recurred, but it could just as easily be a physical illness such as flu.”

And in work, an interviewee reported that standing up for herself was wrongly interpreted as her mental health issue. “You have difficulties with that colleague and I’ve had them use the knowledge of me to say this is why this has happened, because she’s not well … so I am very careful who I discuss it with.”

Dr Henderson said that some people find it liberating to have disclosed at work, while others have used a step-by-step process, giving out information gradually to establish trust and have some sense of control.

Some employees choose not to disclose as it doesn’t affect their work, while others hide a diagnosis as they fear dismissal.

She added, “You have to see the person rather than the condition because the diagnosis does not tell you anything as far as ability to do a job is concerned. It’s about the person performing in the job and judging on a diagnoses could be very misinformative.”

This research, the experience of the people interviewed and a review of literature in the area is the basis for Conceal or Reveal: A guide to telling employers about a mental health condition. The guide is divided into six sections designed to help both employers and employees navigate this sensitive area:

  1. Pros and cons of disclosure
  2. Disclosure needs
  3. Disclosure values
  4. When to disclose
  5. Who to disclose to
  6. Making a decision

Mental Health at Work is a community interest company.  Our mission is to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace. We provide advice and consultancy to improve mental health within workplaces through education, skills development and cultural change. As part of this consultancy service we can advise workplaces on disclosure policies within a mental health strategy.  To find out more please contact us by email at Training



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