How can I explain my mental health problem to co-workers?
Privacy is your right
Your mental health problem is a medical problem, and you have the right to keep that information private. You’re not required to tell anyone else about your condition except if your employer has an absenteeism policy that requires you to provide a medical certificate if you have been absent for a prolonged period of time. You may also have to disclose your medical condition to your employer if you are claiming employee benefits and your company requires claims to be submitted to them directly.
You may choose to disclose the information to your employer if you need an accommodation.
Ordinarily, even if your employer asks you directly about having a mental health problem, you are not required to disclose it.
Tell your employer how you want to handle questions
Society still harbours stereotypes about people with mental illnesses, and those misconceptions and fears make their way into workplaces. Although the stigma around mental illness can take the form of well-meaning misunderstandings, it can result in discrimination and harassment. Everyone has the right to work free of discrimination and harassment. If you do decide to disclose your condition to your employer, you should make sure that they will not disclose the information to anyone else, including co-workers. Likewise, you might decide to tell a trusted co-worker but ask them not to tell your employer. In most cases, however, there is no law that prevents the employer or co-worker from disclosing the information to others in the workplace.
In any case, it’s important that you think about how you want to talk about your condition. There is a range of ways to describe a mental health problem. One organization has suggested some examples of language you may choose to use:1
- General terms: a disability, a medical condition, an illness
- Vague but more specific terms: a biochemical imbalance, a neurological problem, a brain disorder, a difficulty with stress
- Specifically referring to mental illness: a mental illness, a mental health problem, a mental disorder, a psychiatric disorder, a psychiatric disability
- Your diagnosis: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, anxiety disorder
If you have been open with your manager or supervisor about your diagnosis, but don’t wish your co-workers to know that you have, for example, panic disorder, make this clear.
If you know that your employer and co-workers are aware that you have a health problem, you may want to talk about it with them since keeping it secret may create unnecessary anxiety both in you and among your co-workers. This does not mean you have to tell them everything. Your employer and co-workers will probably be uncertain about how to talk about your condition, so let them know how you prefer to discuss it. Remember, you may choose to explain your situation at your own pace; you might first say you have “a problem with stress,” then call it “a psychiatric disorder” or even name the diagnosis itself if you feel it’s necessary or useful to do so.
Scenario: What should you say?
You travel into the next town every Tuesday and Friday afternoon to meet with your psychotherapist about your bipolar disorder. You’ve agreed with your employer that you’ll work until 3 pm on those afternoons, and make up the time by taking short lunches and bringing work home. When you are working this out with your employer you should try to come to an agreement about what other employees will be told. Even though you have no obligation to let others know why you are leaving, it will be obvious to everyone that you are suddenly getting different treatment. This can sometimes lead to hostility or a suspicion of favouritism on the part of the other employees.
For example, two other employees approach you about “going home early;” they want to know why you’re getting “special treatment.”
- If you are not willing to acknowledge having any health problems you might say:
- [Your employer] and I have an agreement that lets me see to personal matters during office hours, but I make up the time.
- I have appointments during office hours each week that I can’t schedule for evenings or weekends, so [your employer] and I have set up a work schedule that lets me make up the time.
- If you are willing to discuss the fact that you have a health problem you might say:
- I have a medical condition, and I have to travel into the next town for treatment, but I make up the time at lunch and in the evening.
- If you are comfortable talking about your mental illness and think that it is appropriate you can say:
- I have a condition called bipolar disorder, and I get treatment during office hours, but I’ve organized my schedule so I make up the time.
Keep in mind that others in your workplace may be going for medical treatment without sharing the specifics. For example, a man who has testicular cancer may choose not to discuss the diagnosis, and may prefer just to let people know that he is getting treatment for a medical condition. You have the same option in how you talk about getting treatment for a mental health problem.
- “Disclosing Your Disability to an Employer.” Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University. Retrieved August 8, 2005, from www.bu.edu/cpr/jobschool/disclosing.htm.