Should I Tell My Boss About My Depression? There’s Lots To Consider First

Depression & Anxiety 1,487 views
Written by Timothy Pfaff

A recent trend in the public sphere to talk about depression or mental illness in the workplace is right about chipping away at stigmas. But there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

Should I Tell My Boss About My Depression? There’s Lots To Consider First

I wouldn’t say that mental illness is trending, and certainly not becoming trendy. To judge from the papers—and movies and TV, and magazine, and, pre-eminently, talk shows—it hasn’t lost any of its fascination for audiences, public and private, particularly viewers who consider themselves unimpeachably mentally healthy.

The upside is that mental illness is to some detectable degree shedding its shadow: stigma. Robin Williams and Carrie Fisher helped a lot, if very late in life and career; the President of the United States and his diminished-capacity son-in-law less so. Still, all things being equal—though they never are—we’ve come a long way.

Interestingly, a topic that’s turning up in the popular press with noticeably increasing frequency—and largely absent from professional studies, perhaps because of its subjectivity—is usually stated as a question: Should I tell my boss about my depression?

A quick review of what’s out there is perhaps the best we can do at the moment. And perhaps I’m not the one to ask. Now and for the foreseeable future, I’ve never been less vulnerable on the work front, and I wouldn’t consider taking on work for which there were impediments other than my own.

I’ve only ever gotten one job I applied for (the last one in the U.S.). The rest have found me. And I’d be the first to call myself blessed at having had a sequence of great bosses—with one exception about which I am legally embargoed to talk. (Something to think about: American labor laws were far better back then.)

About the rest and with the rest, I’ve been able to talk about anything, and to a one they didn’t care if I painted myself blue and lived in a tree as long as I did my work well and was occasionally entertaining. I’m keenly aware of the fact that, as a situation or pattern, that’s no more normal than, well, my mental health status.

So what are other people saying?

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For most of them who have written about the experience, telling their bosses about having depression has worked out well and actually improved the working relationships. Yet it’s hard to dismiss the idea that what made editors want to buy their stories was, in addition to the grit, the fact that they were success stories.

The market is poorer for stories about collecting unemployment benefits or living off odd jobs—unless, of course, the jobs are really, even pruriently odd. As everyone who’s not an already established celebrity knows, “I’m living with depression” is not a conversation starter, or at least not one that should be attempted without a great deal of consultation and preparation.

And a willingness to lose a job less colorful, say, than Janis Joplin’s, in the interest of maintaining your mental health. "Work me Lord." You gotta do what you gotta do.

Success stories

Joseph Rauch, in a powerful post on the Huffpost blog entitled “What Happened When I Told My Boss I was struggling with Mental Illness,” went about the revelation with purpose and preparation and came out of it with more esteem than he went in. By coming out about his depression at the office, he also got the flexible work schedule he proposed. His conclusion is ringing and important:

“We spend most of our lives at work, so how can we battle the stigma attached to mental illness if we are too afraid to mention it at the office?

“Stigma comes from fear, and fear is often a result of misunderstanding something. When I talk about mental illness at the workplace, co-workers see I am equally competent and hardworking despite symptoms affecting my schedule. I have even met employers who understand some of my greatest strengths as an employee stem from my background dealing with depression and anxiety.

“It’s a big part of who I am and I take pride in it, so feeling free to mention it at work makes me more comfortable and, ultimately, a better employee.”

He’s also a scrupulous enough reporter that the middle section of his blog post talks about other, different experiences and, consequently, different recommendations. He also talks about the “honest” anonymous responses of others he queried, and is further candid enough to say that the “cowardice and condemnation” of the people counseling others not to disclose mental health issues at work “makes me furious.”

It’s to take nothing away form the power of his testimony to say that it’s easier to tell a story of personal courage when it has a happy ending. That’s why superheroes sell.

What are some other stories?

There are many. In our Readings section below we list some of the published ones. We encourage you to read them to your heart’s content.

What’s significant about them is that they are individual. There’s no one way this story is told and no one way it comes out. And at least in some particulars, your story won’t be like any you read.

This pretty much lays waste to the idea that the clear answer to Should you? or Shouldn’t you? is Yes or No.

Here’s what I think

That makes what’s to follow an opinion, although I’ll allege it’s a considered one.

I’ve been very lucky. So, in my opinion, has Joseph Rausch, which takes nothing away from his courage in taking the action he did and the further courage in writing about it in a public forum.

I don’t think it’s wholly an accident that he and I are both writers and editors, at one point or another journalists. This suggests that we work(ed) in environments where people were at least to some extent up to date in their information, if not always their attitudes and personal opinions.

Like so many stigmatized groups, people with depression are also having a #MeToo moment. Every pebble dropped into that pail of toxic fluids that is the collective stigma about mental illness displaces more of the gunk. That warrants a round of applause.

But your pebble is your pebble to do with as you want. You’re under no moral imperative to do anything with it but love it or, if you wish, put it on the shelf to take a better look at it.

It’s like disclosing anything else. Good if you do, not bad if you don’t—until you’re ready or ever. Your business is your business, and there’s no way of telling what people who make it their business to get in other people’s business will do with yours, now or later.

For me personally it was like coming out as gay. In that regard, my story is better than some and worse than others. I will say there were no laughs along the way—until much, much later.

But it happened for me on the crest of a wave of large-scale, political, public comings out, which gave me great security and support on some fronts but brought its own set of problems on the fronts where I felt I had to battle.

Yes, it was liberating, for me. For thousands of others it led to institutionalization and shockingly cruel forms of punishment. If you haven’t read Gerard Conroy’s Boy Erased, about surviving an “ex-gay conversion” program, it will be released soon by a major studio with megastars.

But what alarmed me back then and does to this day is speed with which people who came out in whatever ways they deemed successfully rushed to make it an imperative for everyone else to follow suit. The certain someones who are left out of that well-intentioned command are talking about taking their lives in their hands—and all too often take their lives.

The world has come a once-unimaginably long way with LGBTQ rights from those first public uprisings in the 1970s. One unforeseen consequence has been the now-escalating political drive to push those advances back, often with literally deadly repression.

The chipping away at stigmas about mental illness—enormously heartening as they are—does not seem to me to be anywhere near a comparable cresting of the wave that the Gay Liberation Movement rode. The opponent is the same: fear.

When I was working hospital psych, back at the same time that the gay-pride wave was cresting, the name for the fear was most often “homosexual panic”—less the fear that a gay person could hurt you but that, god (often literally) forbid, you should be one of them.

I can think of no good reason to assume that your boss, grouchy or not, has not been touched by depression, clinically or otherwise. So you can’t possibly know what fire you’re lighting by talking about something you understandably think is just you talking about you.

Depression may—probably does—tell you that you are living in a vacuum. In most cases you are not. Far more people are affected by what you say, and often in unimaginable or unforeseeable ways, than you could determine in advance with your best calculations. As often as not that’s the good news, but there are no guarantees of that, either.

In recovery circles, saying who you are—telling your truth—is rightly understood as a “selfish” act of the most self-actualizing, self-liberating, and self-loving kind. It’s where getting well starts.

At the same time, it’s no accident that the longest-lived flank of the recovery movement is made up of groups whose names end in Anonymous. The oldest written guide to recovery from alcoholism calls for “rigorous honesty.”

But it also talks of getting honest as a process. With regard to “fessing up” at work, it asks the person inclined to do so, holding back nothing, to consider its effects on others as well.

Among them is the harm it could do to people dependent on the earnings of the person wanting to “come clean,” should it lead to the loss of the job. It also asks whether finding oneself jobless and with a stained work record is in all cases advisable. Few things aggravate depression more severely than being broke.

The book does not recommend dissembling. It recommends considering both necessity and timing alongside what in some circles is called “compulsive disclosure.”

So should I or shouldn’t I?

Scott Berry | Life Coaching in Bangkok

When you 'bottom-out' in the cycle of depression there's very little you can do but reach out for medical help. But once you get it, and you begin to emerge from that horrible place, that's when you can actively work to improve your life and create resilience strategies that help should you start 'falling' again.

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Dunno. It’s complicated. We offer the following thoughts not to inhibit you or belittle you or, especially, to scare you. We offer them in the spirit of your doing self-care.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Make sure your depression is being treated, under medical supervision or some kind of legitimate, professional help. If your treatment is adequate, there’s no particular reason to assume that your depression is negatively affecting your performance at work. Never let depression drive.
  • Talk about it with someone else. Don’t start with a workmate—or your boss. Consult people qualified to give good counsel, such as a coach or therapist, before you say anything in the workplace. There is no worse advise-giver than depression, and the better ones have phone numbers and websites.
  • Consider whether informing your boss that you’re dealing with depression is necessary. Barring feedback that your work is below par or “suffering,” there may be no need to disclose that you are.
  • Don’t act impulsively or compulsively.
  • Think positively, but don’t assume an outcome, positive or negative.
  • If you plan to tell your boss, plan to tell your boss. It’s not a conversation to try to wing. Think through what you want or need to say. Consider scripting it and rehearsing it with someone else, or a mirror, if necessary.
  • Understand that we wouldn’t use the word “depression” if we’d come up with a better one. You can be certain that every single person you know has an idea of what it means, that each of those ideas is subjective and individual, and, as a friend put, “It’s not a great line to lead with if you’re tying to get a date.”
  • Be really careful about using the words “mental illness.” For most of us it’s the key to understanding that there isn’t something fundamentally wrong with us, or bad in us. But assuming that copping to a mental illness is going to work to your advantage in 2018 is naïve.
  • Think about all the people the disclosure will affect—principally but not solely you.
  • Take into account the insurance implications. Worldwide it’s quicksand out there in the insurance and public-health world. And it’s not just about keeping or losing your coverage. Once the information is public, it’s out there, you can’t unsay it, and you can count on the fact that it will make at last some of the rounds.
  • Be your own hero. If you can take a stand that helps break down the stigma about mental illness in even the smallest way, Hooray for you. But it’s not your job. Your job is your job. And what may legitimately count as being a hero for you is pushing back against depression enough to go to work at all—or summoning the courage, focus, and energy to look for a different, more appropriate job, including working for yourself.