Life at Work

Should You Tell?

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 18, 2007

If you have depression or some other mental illness, what do you do about work? Hope no one notices? Disclose your illness early on and trust that your boss will understand?

Should You Tell is a complicated question. There is no right answer, and there are some risks to consider.

I discovered this years ago after watching a movie at home with two friends. One of them looked up, scared. She hesitated. And then she let it out: "Do you hear them? The helicopters. They're coming for me, guys."

This sweet, gentle friend was scrunched up in the corner of the couch, shaking. Her Ivy League graduate degree and over-the-top intelligence couldn't get her out of this situation. We had to get her to the hospital.

The next day, after she'd spent a night in the emergency room, I called her boss to say she had the flu. Another friend and I took turns calling in the flu excuse while she huddled in her room. It wasn't convincing.

This friend had a prized internship that should have turned into a good job. It did not. From the boss's point of view, something peculiar was going on. My friend appeared unreliable. Her boss never knew why her performance so suddenly dropped. Not only was my friend soon out of a job, but she also knew she couldn't even ask for a reference.

One in four people has depression or mental illness, and many of those who are affected face the same dilemma: Tell your boss, and you may be ostracized, penalized or not hired. Don't tell, and your boss might lose confidence in you. Despite the long way we've come -- public figures such as former Montgomery County executive Douglas Duncan, Pittsburgh Steelers superstar Terry Bradshaw, and writer and political adviser Robert Boorstin have announced that they, too, have depression or other related illnesses -- a strong stigma is still attached to these diseases.

After the experience I had with my friend, I was inclined to think that the best thing to do is tell. But then I spoke with Sarah.

She works for a Washington area aid organization and often goes on month-long trips to war zones, where she works seven days a week. She has depression, treated with therapy and medication. Until recently, it didn't interfere with work, so she kept silent.

But stress had been accumulating during three years in the job. When a trip to a war-torn nation in Africa came up recently, she worried she wouldn't survive it. The stress had "put me in a place where I just couldn't function," she told me. "I thought I might truly kill myself if I had to go out to the field again."

The only way to stay home and get treatment was to tell her boss.

But she soon felt as if she was being punished for being ill. "I was forced to do work I had never been asked to do before. I was not seen as the go-to person to be relied on anymore," said Sarah, who is soon moving on to a new humanitarian job.

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