Disclosing Health Issues at Work: To Tell or Not to Tell

Two businessmen talking seriously, blurred focusJake, who has been seeing me for therapy for some time, is sliding further into depression. He is struggling to get up in the morning, complete daily living tasks, and concentrate at work. Jake needs to take some mental health days off to stabilize his mood, but he’s unsure how his employer will handle his request.

Also working with me in therapy is Sarah, a person with a chronic illness who is unemployed but wants to work part-time to contribute to her family. She experiences unexpected pain and fatigue that can be debilitating, sometimes confining her to bed all day. Sarah isn’t sure if she should tell her potential employer in the interview about her condition, fearing she will not be hired.

Does either of these situations resonate with you due to a mental or physical diagnosis? Are you afraid to tell your employer about your condition out of fear you will be treated unfairly? If so, you are not alone. Many people with chronic conditions face this dilemma.

Should You Tell Your Employer?

How do you decide whether to tell your employer about your diagnosis? Certainly, there are risks to disclosing; you leave yourself vulnerable to those around you and risk being treated differently or unfairly. But there are dangers to not telling, too. If you don’t disclose your condition’s symptoms to your employer, you run the risk of being seen as incompetent or lazy at your job, which could lead to negative consequences. And if you don’t disclose important information, you may not be protected legally in the event of discrimination.

What are your rights, you ask? The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects you from any potential consequences and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for anyone with a condition it defines as a “disability.”

Certainly, there are risks to disclosing; you leave yourself vulnerable to those around you and risk being treated differently or unfairly. But there are dangers to not telling, too.

The term “disability” is defined by the U.S. Department of Labor as:

  • A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
  • A record of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or
  • Being regarded as having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities

Likewise, a mental health disability is “a mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.” Some common mental health conditions include depression, bipolar, posttraumatic stress (PTSD), obsessive compulsion (OCD), panic, and schizophrenia.

Common challenges include:

  • Maintaining regular attendance
  • Dealing with the change of starting a new job
  • Nervousness about interacting with others
  • Understanding how to manage time
  • Organizing information
  • Handling stress and emotions
  • Maintaining focus

Ultimately, disclosing your disability to your employer is a personal decision. It might be helpful for you to find support in making this decision. Your choice to tell can change depending upon the situation and the need for an accommodation. If you decide to tell your employer about your condition, do so in a way that feels good for you; share as much as you think is necessary with those who need to know.

Note: To protect confidentiality, names in the preceding article were changed by the author.

References:

  1. Tugend, A. (2014, November 14). Deciding whether to disclose mental disorders to the boss. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/15/your-money/disclosing-mental-disorders-at-work.html
  2. United States Department of Labor. (2016). Entering the World of Work: What Youth with Mental Health Needs Should Know About Accommodations. Retrieved from http://www.dol.gov/odep/pubs/fact/transitioning.htm

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea M. Risi, LPC, therapist in Denver, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 13 comments
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  • Dylan

    Dylan

    April 27th, 2016 at 7:35 AM

    I think that a big part of this will all depend on how well you both know and trust your employer. I think that it would be better to tell your boss face to face instead of having them hear it from someone else, but unless this is going to cause you to lose a significant amount of work then I think that it is also ok to keep them information to yourself. I don’t think that there is a law out there that would require you to tell them outright, again, not unless it is going to keep you from being able to perform your job duties or will mess with your attendance record.

  • Sheila s

    Sheila s

    April 27th, 2016 at 12:29 PM

    If you are a danger to the public health then I say that you are obligated to disclose the information. If this affects no one but you? Then I say that the choice is completely yours

  • June

    June

    April 27th, 2016 at 2:17 PM

    Definitely believe that the person with the chronic illness should tell

  • Timothy

    Timothy

    April 28th, 2016 at 6:45 AM

    While you might not really want to share everything it can be very healing to do so. It can be like lifting a weight that you had no true idea just how much pressure it was actually placing on you. If you do it in a way that is wise and thoughtful and have a serious talk with your employer I think that you will find that most of the time they will be very understanding about it and will do anything that they can to help accommodate you with any problems that you are facing. In the long term I think that you will find that it can be a very healthy thing for you to divulge.

  • Robert

    Robert

    April 28th, 2016 at 10:40 AM

    If you happen to work somewhere with a bunch of gossips there is a pretty good chance that people are going to find out any way soo…

  • Ryanne

    Ryanne

    April 28th, 2016 at 2:12 PM

    If I am not mistaken it is illegal for someone to fire you over an illness. They even have to be willing to allow you to take sick or family leave time to recuperate without fear of losing your job in the interim.

  • Anthony

    Anthony

    April 28th, 2016 at 5:11 PM

    I really look forward to the day when there is no second thought for us to tell one’s employer (or anyone for that matter) that we’re suffering from something so many others suffer from and that is mental illness.

  • rebekah

    rebekah

    April 29th, 2016 at 7:13 AM

    You owe it to your boss to tell them what is going on. Think of all the times they have probably taken up for you and given you the benefit of the doubt. Now it is your turn to give them some of that respect in return. This includes not withholding information form that that they should probably know and keeping them updated if and when there are some changes.

  • RuE

    RuE

    April 30th, 2016 at 9:18 AM

    what if without telling you then place another person in the way of harm if you are contagious? Then what do you do? Continue to fail to take any responsibility for your actions? That’s not the right thing to do and you know it.

  • Andrea Risi

    Andrea Risi

    April 30th, 2016 at 9:47 AM

    Thank you all for your comments! Yes, I too hope that one day this will not be an issue. It’s agreed that the amount of information you share depends on your relationship with your employer and coworkers. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does protect people in this situation.

  • Amy

    Amy

    May 1st, 2016 at 1:01 PM

    If your company is large enough to have an HR department, that’s the best first step to ensure your ADA rights are protected. Managers can have a way of “magically” coming up with performance issues if they think you might need a leave of absence and without proper documentation, it’s your word against theirs. HR should advise you on FMLA and the documentation they need to substantiate the need for accommodations.

  • talitha

    talitha

    May 4th, 2016 at 2:24 PM

    I still work for a very small business and yeah, there are some things in my own life that I would never disclose because I would be afraid that I would lose my job as a result.

  • Harold

    Harold

    May 30th, 2016 at 6:40 PM

    I worked for the federal government as a civilian employee for 31 years. I was a pipefitter/plumber. I went though an apprenticeship for my trade. I developed a panic disorder/ depression after about 3 years of employment. I never told a sole in all those years about my condition. Working with a bunch of blue collar workers is very hostile enviornment. I guess I was too proud to disclose the secret. I was afraid of the teasing and gossip. I was very capable at my job, but very afraid I would have a break down at work and get fired.

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