When to tell the boss
April 26, 2005 5:12 PM   Subscribe

Managers, employers, and workers with this experience: should I tell my boss about my bipolar disorder? I'm about to enter a situation where it might disrupt my work...

I have been employed at this company for a year, and did not inform them of my bipolar disorder. I did not have need to. I have been given great reviews, a raise, and a bonus since working there, so they like me. My boss is obviously pleased with my work. I would not tell them about my mental illness unless I had to however, as they do not seem as forgiving as past employers I have had (and did tell).

I have been on medications now for 3 years, and have been mostly stable while working here. Recently, I have been experiencing some mood disruptions, and it is possible that I may have to change my primary medication. I have had a few "sick" days here and there due to side effects of changing secondary medications; the thought of changing my primary medication scares me. I anticipate needing time off from work to deal with my illness during the change and with side effects of new medication. I would think my manager would like a heads up that I might need time off. On the other hand, this would bring up the Americans with Disabilities Act, since I would then be covered under it by notifying my employer of my condition, and it would bring up any stigma my boss or the company hold for mental illness.

Would telling my boss be an invitation for them to find a creative way to fire or demote me? Or is it better to explain what is going on so that I am not fired anyway for taking too much sick time or too many breaks unexplained?
posted by veronitron to Work & Money (18 answers total)
I should have said that this is an office job in a large corporate environment. I am salaried.
posted by veronitron at 5:14 PM on April 26, 2005

It depends to a certain extent on your relationship with your supervisor and how you think that person might react. You probably have a better sense of that than random Internet person.

If it was going to be impacting my work though, my inclination would be to tell.
posted by willnot at 5:22 PM on April 26, 2005

I would think that you could definitely start by walking kind of a grey line--let them know you've got an imminent disruption coming up, and that you want to help work around it, but don't go into a lot of detail of what exactly's going on unless/until you really have to.

You've got every right to take the sick leave that you're automatically due, and even some of your vacation time, if you need to, without going into a lot of detail as to why--the ADA doesn't need to come into the picture unless you need accommodations above and beyond what every other employee's entitled to. Your managers may not be thrilled that you're taking it off all at once, but they will definitely appreciate it if you take care to make sure it doesn't disrupt some big project, etc. If they're going to hold it against you that you're taking the time off that you've earned like anyone else, then you've got a whole other type of problem to deal with--like it's a bad place to work. (Not that that's a solution, but still--there's not much you can do about that.)

Even if things do get to the point that you need to invoke some additional protection through ADA, you don't _necessarily_ have to tell your direct manager what's going on in your personal life. Most companies with a decent environment will let you talk frankly to an HR person or someone else who's not directly involved in your daily work, and they should be able to just vouch to your manager that you've got a valid issue you're dealing with, without divulgin what it is. Of course, again, if they're likely to violate your confidence behind your back, or use the information against you, then you've got a whole different class of problem.

Good luck--it may not always be easy, and it may frankly get compounded by the specific issues you're dealing with, but a decent place of work will definitely have mechanisms to help you work this out.
posted by LairBob at 5:31 PM on April 26, 2005

There's absolutely no need to discuss a medical condition - mental or otherwise - with an employer. It's none of their business. If you need to take some time, just go ahead and take it.
posted by aladfar at 5:33 PM on April 26, 2005

You might also be eligible for a medical leave of absence, depending on your company's policy. That might be the best route to take. Your physician does not have to state the exact reason on the request.
posted by smich at 5:52 PM on April 26, 2005

I'm tempted to advise telling your supervisor that you have "a chronic medical condition" for which you'll likely need to change treatments soon. There's not a thing wrong with having a psychiatric illness, but there are some who'll forever look upon you different if they know about it. Sadly.
posted by houseofdanie at 6:09 PM on April 26, 2005

If you have real and substantial concern that your bipolar disorder may significantly effect your performance and/or compromise the security of your employment you should discuss this with your HR department. You are not protected under the ADA if you do not declare a disability and/or request a reasonable accommodation. It is specifically this type of situation the ADA was designed to cover--If you are seriously concerned it would be worthwhile to discuss this with an attorney specializing in plaintiffs labor law--he/she can advise as to how best to broach this with your employer--if this is a med/large corporation, or one with reasonable sensitivity, there is absolutely no reason this should not be handled in a mutually respectful and beneficial manner--good luck and best wishes on your med change Frank
posted by rmhsinc at 6:20 PM on April 26, 2005

Wouldn't this be covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act? If you are at a large corporation (100+ employees) and have worked there for more than one year, you should have job protection.

From above site:

Synopsis of Law
Covered employers must grant an eligible employee up to a total of 12 workweeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for one or more of the following reasons:

for the birth and care of the newborn child of the employee;
for placement with the employee of a son or daughter for adoption or foster care;
to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition; or
to take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition.

Of course, IANAL or even an HRP
posted by SashaPT at 7:17 PM on April 26, 2005

Stigma's the big ugly green monster in the room that no one talks about. You can cite laws and amendments until you're blue in the face, but the reality is that people with mental illness face stigma.

I'd suggest not disclosing any more details to your employers than needful. Ideally this would be 'zero'.

Luckily, you don't have to. You can have your doctor do what I do when I write a letter:

"I saw patient M in my office today. Please excuse her from work for the afternoon."


"I am recommending a medical leave of absence for patient X, the time not to exceed 2 weeks."

Note that information about your diagnosis, which is private medical information, is not communicated. There's no legal way for your employer to inquire about it, either; she may not ask you nor your doctor nor health plan about it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:17 AM on April 27, 2005

ikkyu2 --I am not sure your answer is correct--I am an employer and we routinely request, and receive, medical information regarding leave of absences whether under our own policies or as part of the FMLA. In these cases the employee is requesting leave beyond the normal benefits offered by us--Since veronitron has only been employed a year my guess is that he does not have much sick leave accumulated. Stigma ia certainly an issue--not to be minimized--nut neither is a poor performance review or disciplinary action because he did not accurately assess the consequences of his illness--My Best Frank
posted by rmhsinc at 4:18 AM on April 27, 2005

I agree with minimum details... I told one employer and goodness, by that afternoon it was around the entire company. Somehow it went from the truth, that I needed a mental health leave, to I'd attempted suicide. Gossip sucks; stigma sucks more.
posted by IndigoRain at 5:03 AM on April 27, 2005

You might want to consider having a chat with your company's HR manager; he/she will likely be able to give you advice on internal policies while maintaining a degree of confidentiality from your supervisors. (A few years ago i needed time off for surgery i didn't feeling like blabbing about; my co's HR person wrote a memo to my supervisor stating that i had a legitimate reason for time off, however that reason was personal/private; my manager took that memo at face value and gave me the time off, few questions asked.)
posted by Kololo at 5:04 AM on April 27, 2005

Fuck no, don't tell. Law or no law, they'll be whispers and tense silences for the rest of your time at the company if you do tell.

If you just need a few days, take 'em. If you need more, follow ikkyu2's advice about a vague doctor's note.

And I'll go ikkyu2 one better (he's a smart doctor, but I'm sneakier): since they'll know something is up, apply misdirection. Imply, but do not say explicitly, that you're having "female troubles"; try to give the impression that those troubles are messy but unrelated to sexual activity. Think "ovarian cyst".

This will get all men who hear this entirely uninterested in further details. Women may sympathize and inquire, but just act as if discussing it makes you feel ill, and they'll back off -- you're apparent "inability" to mention the exact nature of your "female problems" will further give the impression that no one wants to hear the details.

Now that they have a believable explanation for both your time off and your mood, no one will give it another thought. But if you don't give them some (bogus) explanation, they'll cast around wondering everything from "does she have an inoperable cancer" to "is she pregnant" to "is she infertile" to "is she 'crazy'".

If you don't want to go the "female troubles" route, you can also go with digestive troubles: the point being, you want to imply a condition that is regrettable, easily treatable, faintly disgusting, and completely boring for your co-workers to discuss.
posted by orthogonality at 6:12 AM on April 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

Stigma's the big ugly green monster in the room that no one talks about. You can cite laws and amendments until you're blue in the face, but the reality is that people with mental illness face stigma.

And that's why, if you feel the need to spill the beans, you should emphasize that it is a medical problem. IMHO stressing the "illness" part of mental illness helps to minimize stigma. After all, people with other chronic conditions--say, diabetes--probably don't experience the same kind of stigma.
posted by scratch at 6:39 AM on April 27, 2005

ikkyu2 --I am not sure your answer is correct--I am an employer and we routinely request, and receive, medical information regarding leave of absences whether under our own policies or as part of the FMLA.

Frank -- you may be violating Federal HIPAA regulations -- you need your worker's permission to access this information -- you best watch yourself -- if you ever do this to one of my patients -- I'll have you thrown in Federal prison -- Peace -- David
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:37 AM on April 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

ikkyu2 --I am sure glad we do not do business together--I run a large mental health agency and may well be wrong--I will double check--I am sure we always have the employees permission but securing this permission is part of us getting accurate and timely information regarding the nature of the disability, reasonable accomodations,length of planned absence, etc.--I can tell you--I would be very reluctant to offer extended medical leave for an unspecified condition--I am quite sure we would ask for a second opinion--we would do the same for some worker compensation claims--regardless--I know that we have never had a single compaint and this is in an organization with a collective bargaining agreement--Gee, I feel a bit defensive--we are very committed to making sure all of our employees are protected by the ADA and FMLA--from the employers perspective I am not sure how applicable HIPPA is--it certainly relates to information regarding our patients--If I am wrong I will post a correction--Thanks, I think--also, I think jail is a bit strong--I doubt that if we are in violation it rises to the level of egregious Tanks for the dialogue--I do stand behind my my prior statement that takes issue wuth the fact that one should never disclose a "mental (psychiatric) condition--stigma can be very destructive--unemployment can aslo be extremely problematic--Take Care Frank
posted by rmhsinc at 2:06 PM on April 27, 2005

It didn't seem right to make a whole MeTa thing out of this, but let it be noted that the shift to real first names here feels very, very, very, very creepy. (I know they're available in profile, but still. . . If a last name popped up on these google-searchable pages, it would be even worse indeed.)
posted by nobody at 7:38 AM on April 28, 2005

Here's 2 books that are on my wantlist at Amazon... obviously that means I haven't read them yet or I'd give you an opinion.

Don't Call Me Nuts : Coping with the Stigma of Mental Illness

Telling Is Risky Business: The Experience of Mental Illness Stigma

posted by IndigoRain at 10:06 PM on May 1, 2005

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