Should you tell your boss about your mental illness?

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Living with a mental illness can be challenging. Besides potentially affecting your relationships or disrupting your day-to-day life, it can have an impact on your success at work, mainly because of stigmatisation.

'My boss won't understand'

Working as an accountant in a cut-throat corporate environment, Mandy Clarke*, a 29-year-old mother of two from Cape Town, is too scared to tell her boss she has been diagnosed with depression. “I am managing the illness with medication and by seeing a psychologist, but my boss won’t understand,” she says.

“She will just see it as a sign of weakness and think I can’t do my job properly. Disclosing my mental illness might even jeopardise my chances of getting a promotion.”

Read: South Africa struggles to manage mental illness

Unfortunately there are many more people walking in Mandy’s shoes. According to SADAG (The South African Depression and Anxiety Group) most people with depression are in the economic engine age group of 25–44 years – and during their last depressive episode employees took an average of 18 days off work due to this condition.

With these staggering numbers one would expect South African workplaces to be a supportive environment. But, like Mandy, many employees who fear stigmatisation in an unsupportive environment wonder: Should I disclose my mental illness?

What does the law say?

There’s no legal obligation on an employee to ever disclose a mental illness, says labour lawyer Peter Strasheim. “A mental illness is often not apparent and not readily visible. Many employees choose to keep their diagnosis private and confidential.”

If you decide to disclose a mental illness it might be reassuring to know you are completely in control of how much information you want to provide, when and how to disclose, and who to trust with this confidential information.

Read: Mental illness: Would your HR manager understand?

Qualifying for affirmative action rights

A mental illness can be regarded as a disability and should be treated as such. The Employment Equity Act (EEA) says, if it is to be regarded as a disability, the illness must “substantially limit entry and advancement in employment”, be “long-term”, “recurring” or “progressive”.

“Diagnosis almost always needs the opinion of a medical practitioner or a health professional,” says Strasheim. “A line manager, human resources or industrial relations practitioner is not qualified to make this decision.”

A benefit to this is that the employee can apply for and retain jobs that fall within the category of affirmative action. “Employees of this designated group – just like black people and women – are entitled to expect, demand and receive the benefits of affirmative action.”

When should you disclose?

So, you finally feel comfortable enough to disclose a mental illness, but this doesn’t mean you should simply burst into your manager’s office and get the “confession” of your chest. According to Strasheim the following occasions might be an opportune time to discuss it:

  • When applying for a new job
  • When your work becomes difficult
  • If you want to benefit from affirmative action rights
  • When you think your employer might want to dismiss you

How to disclose

Most managers are not well-educated about mental disorders, and often the onus is on the employee to inform them about the specific disorder.

Dr Colinda Linde, a clinical psychologist from the CBT group and chairperson of SADAG’s board, says your employer does not have a right to know the specific diagnosis. “If you feel it is in your best interest to give details about your mental illness, do so, otherwise, you can just speak in general terms,” she says.

Read: How to care for someone who is mentally ill

Linde gives a few guidelines to follow:

  • You can use phrases like “disability”, “biochemical imbalance” or “neurological disorder”.
  • If you decide to give an exact diagnosis, give your employer some brochures or refer them to SADAG.
  • If you require your workplace to accommodate your condition, tell your employer what you will need to continue doing the job effectively.
  • You could also tell your employer about specific behaviours related to your illness, and what they can do to help you.
  • You can also ask you consulting psychologist or psychiatrist to be present or you can give consent for them to be contacted.

Read more:

The stigma of mental illness

Stigma keeps employees from revealing mental illness

Mental illness costs 'overwhelming'

*Not her real name

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