Currently, 1 in 5 Canadians are experiencing a mental illness or addiction and 1 of 2 Canadians will have, or have had, a mental illness by the time they reach 40 years of age1. Although these numbers tell us that mental illness is quite common, the stigma tied to mental illness continues to impact our perceptions of mental illness and our decisions around when or with whom to share our diagnoses—especially when it comes to disclosing to our employer.
If you are looking for a cut-and-dry answer to this question, then read no further—you won’t find it in this article. The choice to disclose your mental illness to your employer involves a variety of factors, all of which are specific to the situation and the person contemplating this decision. I can, however, offer some points to consider.
First off, how comfortable do you feel talking about your mental health concern in general? The thought of disclosing your mental illness to your employer can seem especially intimidating if there are presently very few people that are aware of this aspect of your life. Consider practicing your disclosure to a close friend or family member and talking about this decision with them.
Imagine disclosing your mental illness to your employer, and notice how you feel in your body. Do you feel anxious? Giddy? Terrified? Or perhaps you feel nothing at all? Notice those feelings and use them as clues to inform your decision. Feeling anxious is extremely common, but notice if your anxiety is coupled with something positive (like hope, relief, happiness) or if it’s sheer terror. If it is the latter, there is a chance that your body may be telling you that you’re not quite ready to share this piece of your life for some reason or another. Try to tap into your intuition as it will likely provide some valuable information about what direction you are leaning toward.
Consider the pros and cons of disclosing. Possible pros could include feeling as though a weight is lifted off your shoulders due to the increased transparency between you and your boss, or the introduction of workplace accommodations that allow you to be more successful in your role (i.e. flexible work hours, modified work load, work from home, etc.). Potential cons could (unfortunately) include discrimination by your employer or increased stress/anxiety due to unsupportive colleagues. For that reason, many people choose to disclose only after they have secured a strong reputation or at work or level of comfort with their employer so that they don’t feel like future opportunities would be limited following their disclosure. Try using a tool like this oneto help you identify the advantages and disadvantages of disclosing (or not disclosing) to your employer. An example of the above tool partially filled out can be found by clicking here.
Do you need to disclose? If you are functioning well at work, don’t require any accommodations, and have a solid support system outside of your job, there’s a good chance that there won’t be much to gain out of sharing your diagnosis with your employer.
Stigma around mental illness is decreasing, but it still exists. This one is a bit of a double-edged-sword. The key to eliminating stigma lies in openly talking about mental illness, but so long as stigma still exists, so does the risk of being stigmatized and discriminated against. According to the Alberta Human Rights Act, it is a violation to discriminate against an employee due to the presence of a mental disability2; however, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still occur. Nonetheless, many organizations are taking steps to reduce stigma within their work environments and with more companies striving to meet this standard, there’s an increasingly good chance that your workplace could be one of them!
For you, how important is it to work in an environment where employees with mental illness are well supported? For some people, taking care of their mental health can be their highest priority and they don’t wish to work for an organization that is not capable of offering an acceptable level of support. If this is a priority for you, it would be helpful to have a contingency plan in place for what you require to re-establish mental health if life takes a challenging turn. This could include negotiating flex time, prioritizing certain tasks and postponing non-essential tasks, working from home, for example. You could also consider attending a support group such as Edmonton’s Healthy Living with Bipolar Support Group to assist with building this self-management plan. On the other hand, taking a gamble with employment is not a feasible option for many people. If this rings true for you, you may want to err on the side of caution when it comes to disclosing.
Doing nothing is also a choice. You may not have an inclination toward either choice, but that’s okay—because you can choose to do nothing! Maybe you just started a new job a few weeks ago, or maybe you feel like you need more time to decide—whatever the reason, making the choice to do nothing for the time being is a perfectly acceptable choice to make.
Finally, remember that the choice to disclose is yours and yours alone. The possibilities are endless when considering the potential outcomes of disclosing your mental illness to your employer. Fortunately, you have the ability to take the time you need to consider the costs and benefits of disclosing and set the stage for when you disclose (if you chose to).
 Mental Illness and Addictions: Facts and Statistics (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health)
 Alberta Human Rights Act (Government of Alberta)