Should You Discuss Mental Health At Work?


This blog was originally posted in Talkspace

Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health issues. It can be hard to determine when it’s the right time to talk about your conditions, and when it’s the right time to sit back and stay tight-lipped. How do you decide?

In the Workplace

My clients often discuss the challenges of dealing with mental health issues in the workplace. They sometimes ask, “Should I tell my employer about my depression?” A lot of times, it depends.

There are some positive signs that might foreshadow a favorable reaction when it comes to talking to your employer about your mental health. The first question I always ask my clients is, “What do you expect or stand to gain from making this disclosure?” Sometimes the answer is direct and concrete, such as more time to complete an assignment or task. Other times it might be about being able to schedule a break in the work day to make a weekly therapy or doctor appointment.

Most states require privacy when it comes to health information. This means having a mental health diagnosis (a medical condition) affords you certain protections. One of them is privacy. If you decide to talk to your employer about your mental health status, they have an ethical and legal responsibility to keep the information secure.

Nonetheless, we all know gossip and office politics are a part of a lot of work environments. That is an unfortunate reality, but a reality. The biggest sign that your company can handle your disclosure responsibly is if there is a clear human resources department or representative.

The reason why this is so important is two-fold. The first is that talking with a human resources representative may allow you to speak more freely if you’re uncomfortable talking with your supervisor directly. Also, they are bound by law to help you navigate and manage your condition in the workplace. This may mean making some accommodations like time off for appointments or being able to work from home on occasion without fear of reprisal.

Human Resources can only share information with people who need to know in order to make the necessary accommodations. This means they won’t legally be able to share your health information with other co-workers, aside from your direct supervisor. If they do share your information with others, you may want to consider consulting an attorney.

With some jobs (with smaller teams), you may not have access to a Human Resources department or representative. In those environments, you take a greater risk that the person you disclose to is not familiar with the legal requirements of handling this information ethically. While most employers are going to be as accommodating as they can be, they may be less adept at handling your disclosure in the way that meets your needs.

The reality is that there is no guarantee of protection when disclosing your status. Sometimes even an accidental slip of the tongue might occur among colleagues. Hopefully, that’s not the case, but having a Human Resources department to rely on for support is the best case scenario.

If you don’t have the option of utilizing an HR department, then use your best judgment when considering talking with your direct supervisor. You might want to consider how they relate to medical and mental health issues. Have they been gossipy about others’ health concerns in the past? What have been their reactions to conversations about sick days and general mental wellness? Have they seemed supportive of people’s challenges in the workplace? Do they talk about emotional wellness at all? The answers to these questions might give you pause; find out whether your supervisor can be trusted with such information.

In the event that you have to deal with an emotional crisis, hospitalization or rehab, you will also want to know your company’s policy on that. When you are hired, make sure to review your company’s handbook about health and mental health issues. Do they spell out a specific protocol to address these concerns? If they do, you likely have a supportive workplace. If not, you may have to dig a little further to determine how safe your disclosure really is.