With the exception of a few careers, where disclosure of your mental health status is mandatory, there are no rules to say you must tell your employer about your mental health. At this point you may be tempted to breath a sigh of relief. By all means breath away, but before you decide that staying quiet is the best course of action, it’s probably best to weigh up the pros and cons of that decision. In this SharePost I’ve outlined a few thoughts to help the process along.
Let’s deal with some of your concerns first as these are perfectly legitimate. In no particular order, you might be worried that your boss will find the earliest opportunity to let you go? Then there is the danger, or possibly the suspicion, that what you confide will find a way of leaking out. And what if you seem to be completely accepted? Is this simply because the company needs to be seen in a good light? Are you still quietly being passed over for promotion, or seen as a risk, or a poor investment?
Even if you decide it’s best to keep quiet, you need to be aware of situations and circumstances that might undermine your decision. For example, you should reflect on the very real possibility of illness. How will you explain this? What if your employer has benefit plans that require you submit claims through your company? How do you account for your behavior if you are prone to shifting moods? Very often, such questions persuade people that it might be in their best interests to tell the boss.
Having settled on the decision, give yourself time to plan what you are going to say. Just blurting out that you have a mental illness called bipolar disorder is unlikely to help you or reassure your boss. Therefore, adopt a more strategic approach, in the sense that what you say will work to both your advantages. Before you see the boss, get inside their head. What will their concerns be? Even if they don’t ask you much it may simply be that they are afraid to ask the questions. The less you feel you know about the boss, the more you have to assume they don’t know. It may seem a little extreme but it might be worth explaining that a diagnosis of bipolar does not qualify you as an axe murder, child molester, martial-arts specialist or bunny-boiler. It’s fine to use a little humor and to confide in your boss in such a way that of course he/she would understand this anyway. Indeed bosses are increasingly more aware and more sensitive to mental health needs and may not need too much persuading.
Your boss will most likely be interested in how your condition will affect your work and those around you. You are the best judge of this, but now is the time to give an example of your behavior as it relates to your own circumstances. For example, “I get low moods sometimes which might be interpreted that I’m unhappy with colleagues or with work. These moods do pass and even when I’m down my productivity isn’t really affected.”
As your behavior is part of your illness it can help to reassure your boss to know this. Without these insights the danger is your boss may marginalize you or even undertake disciplinary action. It may also be worth giving your boss contact details of your spouse or some other trusted individual if they ever become particularly concerned about you.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.