How to Manage Your Mental Illness at Work
If you suffer from depression, anxiety, PTSD or another mental illness, here are some real-world tips to help you stay happy and healthy at work.
I dropped my freshly cooked lunch all over the carpet. It wasn’t the reason I broke down just outside my office, but it was all the excuse I needed. I fell to my knees, screamed at the carpet, and cried as I shakily cleaned up my food. Then I sat down to write this paragraph. The rest of my breakdown would have to wait until work was done for the day.
Like 46 million Americans (according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness), I regularly deal with a mental illness that has the potential to disrupt my daily life. Some days it comes in the form of an emotional breakdown that stops everything I’m doing dead in its tracks. Most of the time, though, it is quieter. It can be a haze that makes work slow, or it can stifle ideas when I need them most.
Unlike many physical illnesses or disabilities, having a mental illness isn’t always visible to the people you work with. This can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it means you might not face as much open discrimination as someone with a more visible condition. On the other hand, when your mental illness makes doing your work difficult, to outsiders it can look as if you’re just not doing your job well, which also makes it hard to get the support you need.
Fortunately, United States law provides some protections for people with mental illnesses — just as they do for any physical disability — but they go only so far. Here, we’ll go over some of the support you can expect from your employer, but we’ll also discuss strategies you can use to get through the day, even when you’re not feeling your best.
The legal protections you have against discrimination
First and foremost, in most cases, you have the right under the Americans With Disabilities Act not to reveal that you suffer from any mental illness, so long as it doesn’t affect your ability to do your job. However, if you need special accommodations from your employer — some of which are also protected by the A.D.A. — you may need to disclose your condition.
One of your primary protections under the A.D.A. is that your employer cannot discriminate against you because of your condition. While employers have the right not to employ anyone they believe cannot perform the duties a job requires, they are not allowed to use the fact that you have a mental illness alone as a reason to discipline or terminate you. Notably, this extends to employers using stereotypes or misconceptions based on that mental illness.
For example, if you suffer from depression, and your employer — lacking a proper understanding of depression’s symptoms — incorrectly believes you would be too glum or sad to take care of customers, he or she wouldn’t be able to fire you or use it as a reason to withhold a promotion. This is a stereotype and not reflective of your actual job performance. If you received repeated complaints from customers about poor service or frequently failed to show up to work, however, your employer could use this as a reason for discipline or termination.
The reasonable accommodations you can ask for
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is the government agency charged with enforcing the A.D.A. and, according to the commission’s website, you have a right under the A.D.A. to accommodations for any condition that can “substantially limit” your ability to do your job if it is not addressed. Those accommodations include but may not be limited to:
- Time off or flexible work schedules. If you need time off for therapy appointments or to take care of reasonable treatment, an employer must make a reasonable effort to work around your schedule. That doesn’t mean giving you as many days off as you want, but rather things like adjusting shifts around your appointments or providing sick days when your condition is worse.
- A more accommodating work environment. If it is easier to get your work done with your condition when it is not loud, you can ask your employer for a quiet place to work, or accessories like headphones that let you work in peace.
- Special supervisory conditions. Say you have a sensory issue that makes it difficult to retain verbal instructions: You can request that your employer submit instructions in writing instead.
- Permission to work from home. You can request that your employer allow you to work from home, even in situations where other employees may not be granted the same opportunity. However, you must be able to perform your job duties remotely and keep up the level of work expected of you.
As you can imagine, the line between what counts as “reasonable” and not can become fuzzy. If having depression means you need to take a sick day every once in a while, that might be a reasonable accommodation to expect. If you frequently don’t show up to work without communicating with your employer, however, that would have a tangible impact on your job performance.
For some jobs, the accommodations you need might be entirely unavailable. You might be able to request a quiet work environment if you work in an office building. If you work on a construction site, however, that might be impossible. The key word is “reasonable,” and it’s a very fudgy word. As with a physical illness, you may be required to provide a doctor’s note or other documentation to your employer in order to get the accommodations you need.
It is also important that you ask for any accommodation you need before you’re in a situation where it could affect your work. If you don’t speak up about your needs and it affects your job performance, an employer can claim that your termination was because of your work, not your condition. It’s hard to argue if you never explained your situation or what you need in the first place.
What you can do when the law isn't enough
In some cases, it is a good idea to talk to your employer to get accommodation. If you believe you’ve faced discrimination because of your condition, the E.E.O.C. is a good place to turn. As anyone who’s dealt with a mental illness on the job can tell you, however, the reality is often a lot messier than the law makes it seem.
Disclosing your condition to your employer can be scary. You may worry that this will define you in your employer’s eyes — and worse, you may be right. Sometimes bosses just don’t want to deal with helping struggling employees out. The law requires employers to make reasonable accommodations. It doesn’t require them to like it. Even compassionate bosses might not keep your condition in mind when making budgetary decisions or deciding who to promote.
With that in mind, there are a few strategies I’ve collected over the years that help balance personal needs with those of my employers:
- Save the repetitive, tedious work for your down days. Some jobs may require both creative and mechanical or tedious work that you can split up and work on when you’re best able to do it. If your workweek includes brainstorming pitches for a meeting and manually entering data into a spreadsheet, try to get the more creative part of the job done when you’re having a good mental health day, and save the tedious stuff for when you’re having a harder time.
- Seek out the work style that suits your needs best. For the last six years, I’ve had the good fortune to work from home. Before that, I learned that working in an office was harder for me based on my needs. You might prefer structure or you might prefer flexibility, but pursuing jobs that give you what you need can be better in the long term than trying to fit your needs into the spaces left over by your job.
- Take care of your home life. You can’t control everything that happens at work. You have a lot more control at home. If you need space to cry, scream or break down, give it to yourself when you’re off the clock. Take care of the basic routines like food, hygiene and chores that give you a sense of stability.
- Avoid trying to keep up with your co-workers. It’s easy to get swept up in a corporate culture that prioritizes a certain kind of performative work. If your co-workers can sit down for four straight hours and pump out work, don’t try to force yourself to do the same. If you need frequent breaks to keep your stress levels down, that’s how you work. As long as you’re able to do the job to your own (and your boss’s) satisfaction, how you get there shouldn’t be as big a factor.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned, however, is that there is no clear “right” way to do things. Sometimes what works is communicating with your boss about the specific steps you can take together to make a productive work environment for you. And sometimes it means giving yourself space to cry into your lunch for no good reason and coming back to your work when you’re ready. Both are valid and necessary.