Disclosing A Disability At Work

Before I say a single thing, I think it is really important to say that I am talking about mental disabilities or illnesses more than I am about physical disabilities. I understand that physical disabilities, such as having significant hearing/sight problems or mobility problems are something that a lot of people might need to disclose and, fortunately, most work places (in Canada) should have processes in place (or be willing to establish as much) for people with functional disabilities. The problem is that this doesn’t always apply to mental illnesses and, as such, it can be harder to navigate and really scary if your worried about stigma around mental health hurting your career. If you can get something out of this, that’s great, and I will be talking about this with the assumption of mental disabilities. I think a lot of people are like me; we hope that if we try hard enough, that no one will notice that something is going on in our brains. We have the “privilege” of not always having our disability be seen but still have to live with the fear that it will hurt us if people find out.

So if you don’t already know, I have a mental illness/brain-thing- I have an anxiety disorder and was also diagnosed with ADHD as a teenager. Anyone who’s met me would know that this isn’t “holding me back” and that I am a successful person, but that doesn’t exempt me from a lot of worry about what will happen now that I have a full time job. I don’t know if I can just “shut it off” for 8 hours a day 5 days a week (if I could, I probably wouldn’t have a diagnosis). What if one of my coworkers notices that I am getting unnecessarily stressed out about something? What if they think I can’t handle the work load? Any number of things could “go wrong”, even though, realistically, I can handle the work and I can get it done and I will say so if/when I need help so they can just ignore the jitters until then. But what if it is in my best interests to disclose?

I ended up talking to someone at some point this “what if” situation, and I was actually given some pretty helpful tips that I would like to pass on.

1 – Know what you need and ask for it

I know that this can be pretty hard, especially if trying to get a handle on your mental illness is a new thing for you and you aren’t sure what to ask for. If you feel like you want to talk to your boss or a coworker about what’s going on, don’t just drop a bomb and take off. You’re allowed to ask for reasonable accommodations. I think there are limits, like you still have to be capable of doing your job and meeting deadlines, but you can ask to be allowed to bring noise cancelling headphones so you can play peaceful music, remove distracting stimuli from your immediate surroundings, creating lists and task reminders, or having brief 10 minute weekly meetings about your work to address anything before it becomes an issue. Here is a link to check out for lists of strategies: Accommodation Strategies

2 – You can trust a coworker instead of your boss, if that’s what makes you most comfortable

Sometimes we have bosses who aren’t approachable, or aren’t very nice, or maybe you don’t work directly with them most of the time, or maybe they even make you hate your job. Regardless of the reason, you might really need your job or might really love your job and you might as well make the most of it. If part of your “making the most of it” plan includes disclosure, the you can always tell a coworker who you trust or who you work with more directly. This is relevant especially if you work more directly with someone else who’s not your boss in terms of kind of being like “hey, so there’s this thing, if something comes up, I might just need to do X or Y to get by”. They might not be as well equipped to support you, depending on the circumstances, but this kind of ties back to knowing what you need (see #1) and knowing if this person can make a difference in that area.

You can also talk to HR if you need accommodations that go above and beyond what your manager can provide. I am not sure how it works really, but if something you might need is a leave of absence because of your mental health then that might be an HR thing, or if you need something that’ll cost money or if your boss is some how penalizing you because you let them know what (reasonable) things you wanted to put in place to get your job done, then you can go HR to resolve those sorts of things. This is also true if your taking sick days because of your mental illness; I don’t know how those sorts of things work and that’s why it’d be good to talk about those sorts of policies with HR.

3 – if your unsure where to start, you can talk to a counsellor, therapist or other neutral party (or even HR) to come up with a strategy

You can Google more strategies about how to navigate a mental illness at work. Something I think that would ultimately be really helpful is to speak with a therapist, counsellor, or or find someone who you know specializes in dealing with workplace accommodating (you could try your HR department, but you could also try a neutral party if you’re more comfortable with that). You can ask them to help you come up with a targeted plan that will work specifically for you before approaching your boss or coworker about letting them know if you need support

At the end of the day…

 At the end of the day, whether or not you tell anyone at work that you have a mental illness is a super personal choice. You might decide that it’s totally unnecessary for your personal circumstances and be assured that you can get by without having to tell anyone else about it, which is great. But hopefully this will give you some good ideas about where to start if you do think that disclosure is something that would be beneficial to you.


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