Dealing with mental health problems is an albatross for many. Dealing with them in the workplace can be particularly difficult.
QI've been at my job for only three months and am struggling with depression. I'm taking the steps I need to get better (therapy, medication) but am overwhelmed by work in the meantime. My boss is very excited to get me involved in many new projects that would be in addition to my regular tasks, and normally I'd be excited about those opportunities, but right now it's all I can do to make it to work in the mornings. I've thought about telling my boss what is going on, so she'll understand that once I start feeling better I'll have more energy for these projects, as I'm afraid in the meantime she's thinking I don't care about my job. But at the same time I hate to air the dirty laundry so soon after starting here. Any advice?
ADeborah Keary, who regularly answers questions from employers for the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, said this worker's plight is likely to be covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act. But employers cannot accommodate such workers if they don't know about their problems. "The boss might think he's a slacker," Keary said.
Under the law, employers generally are required to make a workplace accommodation for those with disabilities "unless it would cause a business hardship," Keary said.
Keary said the worker "should tell the boss he's under a doctor's care for depression, is taking medication and would like to forgo new projects for a while. He could bring in a doctor's statement at the same time or later."
The employee also might tell his employer how long his treatment is expected to take.
"If he keeps it to himself, no one can help him and he may get fired," Keary said.
But Arthur Brief, an organizational psychologist and professor at Tulane University, said that despite what the ADA might allow, he would hesitate to reveal details about mental illness. "You can be stigmatized," he said.
Brief said the worker would be better off seeking advice from his therapist on how best to cope in the workplace.
I suffered a mental breakdown at my last job and was let go. It's been five years, but now my condition has improved to the point that I believe I am ready to return to work. What is the best way to go about explaining this type of absence?
Keary and Brief agreed that this worker could simply say that she had been absent from the workplace for medical reasons and that she's ready to go back.
Under the ADA, Keary said, "employers are not allowed to ask why."
Brief said that despite the ADA provisions, it would be "only normal" if a corporate interviewer asked. "She ought to be prepared to have a follow-up answer," Brief said. "If the depression was triggered by some life event, if you could attach it to an external event, that would reduce the stigmatization. And you could say, 'Now I've adjusted.' "
-- Kenneth Bredemeier
E-mail your workplace questions to Kenneth Bredemeier at email@example.com. Discuss workplace issues with him Wednesday at 11 a.m. at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.