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I struggle with a mental health issue—does my boss need to know?

Mental health doesn’t take a day off, and no one knows that better than the approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States who struggle with mental illness in a given year. While you may feel completely comfortable calling out with the cold, you may not feel the same about clueing in your boss about the fact that you’re dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and would like to take an actual mental health day. In fact, in a survey conducted by Mental Health America, 55 percent of the nearly 10,000 participants agreed with the statement, “I am afraid of getting punished for taking a day off to attend to my mental health.”

That’s a staggering statement considering how seriously employee mental health should be regarded. If you’re in the midst of a panic attack or struggling to get out of bed because of a bout with depression, getting to work and doing your job to the best of your abilities can feel nearly impossible to some.

So, what do you do if you’re one of the millions of Americans struggling with a mental health disorder and confused about whether or not to disclose it to a manager? And if you do disclose, to what extent should you? Despite ongoing conversations and efforts to raise awareness about employee mental health, it “can come with social judgments and stigmatization of others, particularly in the workplace,” says counselor Stacy Perkins, LCPC, NCC. Below, experts offer guidance about how to navigate the choices you can make about disclosing mental health issues to manager.

Mental health in the workplace: To disclose or not?

“Not always, but sometimes, people who disclose are treated differently, and in ways that can make it harder for them to succeed at work,” says workplace-advice columnist Alison Green, author of Ask a Manager. For instance, Green says, a boss may decide a person isn’t up to taking on challenging projects, or decide not to promote them out of fear the employee can’t handle the responsibility. “That’s, of course, unfair, but it happens, so it’s wise to tread carefully and maintain boundaries unless there’s a real need to share something,” she says. The best way to know if there’s a need to share something? If you would benefit from any special accommodation in light of the situation you’re navigating.

“Having a proactive conversation shows your boss that you care about your job and want to be seen as an employee who is on top of your health, even though you may need additional support for a period of time.” —counselor Stacy Perkins

And “an accommodation” doesn’t need to mean special treatment that will only kneecap your career. In fact, being open to a tweaked arrangement, and bringing this to your manager’s attention may be relieving to them because it communicates that you’re comfortable with appropriate transparency. “Having a proactive conversation shows your boss that you care about your job and want to be seen as an employee who is on top of your health, even though you may need additional support for a period of time,” Perkins says.

Furthermore, being open (and open to ideas for shaping a situation to work for you, which in turn will work for your employer), may be helpful for breaking down the stigma that still unfortunately exists regarding mental health struggles. “As a general rule, mental and emotional health should not be hidden,” says career coach Wendy Toth. “Part of what makes mental health challenges doubly stressful is the compounding pressure of secrecy and acting ‘normal.’”

I want to talk to my boss about my mental health—what should I consider first?

“Mental illness falls under a medical condition, just like any other chronic medical issues,” says Perkins. “Think about how you would share having another medical condition: You would let them know you have a medical condition that has affected how well you function at work.”

Perkins also suggests sticking with facts rather than veering into emotion when it comes to sharing information at work. For instance, you can explain that you are dealing with low energy due to a lack of sleep or are having difficulty concentrating, but rather than seek sympathy, explain that you are following the treatment recommendations of your doctor.

You and your employer can then together ideate strategies for how work can support you, Perkins says, such as working from home on particularly difficult days or having flexible deadlines with current projects. “Having an agreed-upon accommodations plan can be helpful in decreasing any misunderstandings moving forward,” she says. And after you create a support plan, outline it in an email to your boss following your meeting. “It can be helpful to have a paper trail,” she says.

But, when it comes to matters that might require time away but don’t disrupt your in-office work—like taking an hour to attend therapy—Green says you do not need to disclose specifics of what you’re dealing with if you’d prefer not to. “You can simply say it’s for a medical appointment, which it is,” she says.

What to think twice about sharing

As a litmus test for what to disclose, consider what your boss would benefit from knowing. Everything else is an overshare and might draw more attention to the issue than what is likely to benefit you. “Keep it specific to information that is applicable to your work situation,” Perkins says. Toth adds that leaning on terms like “mental health” and “health issue,” or even the actual term of your diagnosis (if you feel so inclined), can be helpful for guiding the conversation, but cautions against getting super specific with your symptoms. Because, again, your boss likely won’t benefit from knowing them.

As a litmus test for what to disclose, consider what your boss would benefit from knowing. Everything else is an overshare and might draw more attention to the issue than what is likely to benefit you.

It’s also important to remember that no matter how great your relationship is with your boss, they are your employer, not your therapist, so set clear boundaries and stick to them.

Understanding legal protections for employee mental health

In an ideal world, a boss would be receptive and, more importantly, maintain your privacy when it comes to health issues. However, if your employer still isn’t accommodating or understanding, remember that you have rights. You are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which, as Perkins explains, guards against discrimination of individuals with disabilities at work. This includes mental-health-related matters: Let’s say, for instance, you need a schedule change or a quieter work space. “If you’re covered under the ADA, your employer is required to work with you to try to find reasonable accommodations that allow you to perform your work, and can’t discriminate against you for having a mental illness,” Green notes.

Another avenue to explore if you need more assistance is your benefits under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA.) “Should you meet the requirements for the FMLA benefit, it can be helpful in giving you some time to get more intense treatment and get back on your feet without the fear of losing your job,” Perkins says. “Your HR department will be able to assist you with the best way to pursue this avenue.” In fact, if you’re concerned about sharing any details with your manager, because of details of your specific dynamic or any other reason, your HR department can generally serve as a helpful resource for your mental health needs.

Speaking of upholding employee mental health, here’s how to employers can create a burnout-free workplace. Plus, gender bias is very much a problem—but we can work to change that.