The Working Life: Disclosing on the Job

  • Continuing this blog campaign, I want to give you some advice in the spirit of an open dialogue so that you're aware of the realities of disclosing on the job and the implications for doing so. It's possible that you will find the kind of work where your diagnosis isn't an issue. If you do need reasonable accommodations, I talk next week about how to get them, as the ADA Act enforces this right should you need it.

    Suzy Welch, in the October Oprah magazine, talks about a person's "embedded reputation" and its effect on one's career. I urge you to read this article if you are employed at a full-time job. The term "embedded reputation" is Suzy Welch's. I'm borrowing it in the context of schizophrenia and how disclosure plays out in the workplace.

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    Embedded reputation, simply, is a perception of you that others have that has become entrenched and determines how they treat you and your opportunity for advancement. It's a kind of stigma that happens to everyone, even if they don't have a diagnosis. It results in your being avoided, people not returning your phone calls, your getting passed over for raises and promotions.

    I'll use my own career as an example. In July 1992, after two months in my new job, I was hospitalized for two weeks. When I returned to work, everyone knew I had a breakdown and treated me differently. To make matters worse, I was a square peg in a round hole: a creative soul trapped in a gray flannel industry. I ignored the effects of my career breakdown until I could no longer deny my opportunities had flat-lined. After trying out for promotions, I was stuck working for a jerk that made my life miserable.

    Two years later, I found another job only to go out of the frying pan into the fire: the office manager called me up one morning on the phone, and told me not to come in. She didn't even have the courtesy to do it in person. From there, I cycled in and out of insurance broker jobs. My heart wasn't in it, and at the last firm-Parker Madison, a luxury brokerage in the 10017 zip code-I nearly had another breakdown until I registered for library school.

    Entrenched perceptions of our capabilities derail anyone, not just those of us with a mental illness, but a co-worker's awareness that we have SZ, as Robin Cunningham alluded to in his blog entry, has consequences. That's why I'm not a fan of disclosure on the job. A good friend, I'll call him Billy, revealed his diagnosis to his higher ups, and his immediate boss was OK with it, but every time he did something that was met with raised eyebrows, as in, "Why did you do that?, the higher-ups accused him of being symptomatic. His supervisor told him, "See? Don't bring up the SZ on any other job. Look where it got you here."

    So, if you want to scale the heights at a company, and even if you don't, keep the illness-and any details of it-private. It's just like AIDS or cancer: nobody has to know unless you want them to know. My mother had breast cancer, and she didn't want to tell people because she didn't want anyone to pity her. It's your right to manage your personal health information as you choose. Develop a "cover story" and write it down somewhere to prepare yourself for what to say if disclosure becomes unavoidable.

  • Last year around this time, I interviewed for a promotion and didn't get it. At the time, I wanted the job. In retrospect, it was a good thing. I decided I didn't want the added responsibilities of supervising a branch. I prefer to do my job to the best of my ability. My therapist, Max, has suggested it's no secret and that co-workers are aware something is up. My goal is to retire in 11 years and become a rehab counselor helping people with MIs obtain employment. On this job now, I have no big dreams or aspirations. I would like to believe I'm well-liked because I'm a stable person who doesn't easily get her feathers ruffled.

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    The bottom line is, employers want to know, can you function as a team member yet manage your own workload, get along with your co-workers and put aside differences to get the job done-fulfilling the mission of the company. Even if you're in the mailroom, or are an administrative assistant, and not a managing partner or a supervisor with a coveted corner office, you must do your job as if it matters, because it does.

    Throwing SZ into the mix deflects from your ability to do the work, because as said, others will engage in what Robin Cunningham calls "deliberate ignorance" to weed out the competition. The reality is, they will consciously or unconsciously use the information against you. I wish I could report that this doesn't happen, or rarely happens, but it does and you have no control over it. You do have control over how you manage the information about your diagnosis.

    In all this, I want you to take away the hope that work is one arena in your life, the place where you can distract yourself from your symptoms and feel proud that you have an identity apart from the SZ. Literally hundreds if not thousands of careers exist for you to choose from, and in a blog entry coming up, I'll talk about how you can find the job you love.

    For now, I'd love to hear from you about experiences you had disclosing your psychiatric condition to an employer. Did it work out? What would you tell others faced with a similar choice?



Published On: November 13, 2008