To disclose or not to disclose, that is the question.
March 24, 2008 6:24 PM   Subscribe

Need advice on disclosing bi-polar disorder to employer.

BACKGROUND (question(s) in bold if you want to skip my long ramble):

Obviously, according to the title, I have been diagnosed with BP II (or possibly cyclothymic disorder). After a horrible experience with Wellbutrin in fall 2006-spring 2007 that almost pushed me over the edge, I went to see a shrink and was properly diagnosed after 20+ years being treated off and on for major depression. For those not in the know, anti-depressants are often a very bad thing to give someone with BP. At first they help the depression but can eventually push you into a manic (or hypomanic) state. I’m not speaking for everyone but that has been my experience and the research (and my doctor) seems to back me up. In late summer 2007 my doctor started me on Lamictal (lamotrigine) and has been slowly ramping up my dosage since then. It's a slow process due to a dangerous (although rare) rash that is usually avoided if you take it slow.

Every time my dosage increases I get better for a few weeks and then get worse until he increases it again. My doctor has treated thousands of bi-polar patients and said this is expected until I reach my proper therapeutic dose. BP symptoms vary depending on the person but my worst problem is paranoia as well as a general lack of control when thoughts pop into my head. My doctor told me Lamictal is also great for this problem and has given his other patients a few second delay before speaking their minds. In addition, I have the usual problems associated with BP: insomnia, racing thoughts, suicidal ideation, etc.

My department head really sucks (generally acknowledged by the entire department) and I haven't gotten along with him since before my Wellbutrin episode. Things have gotten progressively worse since I began the up and down process of starting Lamictal and I have done some things that were out of line, regardless of my boss' poor performance. The exact incidents aren’t that important to my question but, if you were on the outside looking in, you’d be amazed I hadn’t been fired several times over by now. As a testament to my value to the organization (if I do say so myself) and to my boss’ pathetic performance, there were two serious incidents and I wasn’t even written up for either of them. The second one, more serious than the first, didn’t even get me a verbal warning.

Due to my intense paranoia, after the second incident I sent the president an email resigning because I was positive I was going to terminated (despite the complete absence of discipline mentioned above). Within minutes, he called me to his office and told me I was being paranoid (Captain Obvious to the rescue!). He then told me my position was "mission critical", I had a very promising future with the organization and then criticized my boss' performance.

Upon realizing my totally distorted view of the situation I told him about my disorder to try to explain my actions. It might not have been a great idea but what's done is done. He was very relieved to hear there was a valid reason for my actions and offered to work with me in any way necessary to ensure my continued success. I have a fantastic relationship with him and he has a mentally retarded brother so I wasn't concerned that he would pass judgment on me. He told me he would keep this info completely confidential, to the point of not even telling his wife (who I know loosely).

He suggested I also tell the HR Director so she could be able to assist me if I need any accommodations to do my job or if I need help with anything in general. I'll admit this sounds great in theory. However, my boss is really good friends with her so I have some obvious concerns about confidentiality. I used to have a great relationship with her (dated her best friend for 6 months) but it has slipped a little over the past year or so due my weird actions. I still do things with her occasionally like going to her Super Bowl party, but it's not the same as it used to be. Another concern would be that she would tell my boss because she thinks he has a "right to know" because I report to him.

Here's my question(s): Have you told you boss (or co-workers I suppose) about a mental illness? If so, how did it go afterwards? Did the news spread and, if so, how did it effect your reputation and\or working conditions?

It might be my paranoia again, but I have concerns in general with sharing personal info with too many people. While one or two key people in an organization "should" be able to keep a secret, I think the expectation for confidentiality drops significantly with each additional person that gets the information. BP II or cyclothymia shouldn't be nearly as alarming to an employer as BP I, but most people don't know the difference. Once my meds get to the right dosage it will hopefully be a non-issue.

To play devil's advocate, should I tell the HR Director to protect myself from possibly getting fired for actions related to my BP? I've read that, in some cases, BP Disorder is protected under the ADA. But I've also read that, to get full protection (assuming you're covered by the ADA), you need to disclose it before you get to the point of being fired. Otherwise, it looks like you're making it up just to save your job.

FYI, I checked my company policies and, while there is mention of confidentiality regarding results from physicals used during the hiring process, there is no mention of exactly how other medical info must be handled. It states that it must be kept in a separate file from your personal file but not that it can't be discussed with your supervisor.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I would go with a no on this one.

The feedback you are getting from others appears to be that you are not out of line and not about to get fired. (Having spent many years "about to get fired" until I found the right medication, I know very much where you're coming from).

If the CEO knows about the situation, you've already done more than enough in protecting yourself from getting fired for it.

Hang in there and I hope things even out soon.
posted by tkolar at 6:51 PM on March 24, 2008

Below is what we say in our factsheets on this topic. When we talk with clients about this question, we try to help the person assess the pros and cons, and come to a decision. There's no one-size-fits-all answer. FWIW, most people do not disclose until they feel that they must disclose. OTOH, I disclosed at my job 12 years ago and I couldn't be happier with my decision.

In your particular situation, the fact that you have told the president of the company may "count" as having already disclosed, if you ultimately have problems related to your disability.

Okay, from our factsheets/manual:


The decision to disclose a psychiatric disability to an employer is an extremely personal one. Employees considering disclosing a mental health disability should weigh both the costs and benefits of the move. These include:

· Need for accommodation to perform the job
· Need for accommodation to avoid discipline or termination
· Need for accommodation to protect health
· Whether the modification may be obtained without disclosing disability
· Risk of stigma and harassment
· Risk of loss of privacy
· Potential for more successful and supportive employment experience.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 6:56 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

You've already disclosed to the CEO, and the CEO has your back. No further action seems required.
posted by flabdablet at 12:57 AM on March 25, 2008

Just for the record, make a detailed account- including dates and the course of the conversation- of the actions you have taken and what you were told- just to cover your back.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 7:10 AM on March 25, 2008

i think you're in a good position as is because the president knows your situation and was glad you told him. i don't think it's necessary that you tell your douche boss.

should you tell hr? i dunno. i would say probably not at this point, because they are there to help the company, not the employees.

i was in a similar situation at a different job. i was switching anxiety meds and knew from experience that gave me a week or two of feeling like shit and freaking the fuck out. i had a good relationship with my boss and told her what was going on and that i would be out of sorts for a week or so. turns out she was on meds too and knew exactly what i was going through. so that worked out well. i would NOT have told hr or anyone else however because it would not have been kept confidential, nor would it have been viewed as "okay" for me to be this way.

so, anyway. the president is in your corner, and that's the best thing you could ask for in your position.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:33 AM on March 25, 2008

It's hard to say. I started having anxiety attacks at work so didn't really have any choice about disclosing. And yeah, some people have treated me worse, and anxiety isn't as scary sounding as bipolar. But I was able to ask for and get some minor accommodations such as having my desk move to the quietest corner of the room, and I probably wouldn't have gotten it if I hadn't disclosed. So I guess my advice is don't disclose unless there's something you want HR to specifically do for you.
posted by happyturtle at 12:56 PM on March 25, 2008

The HR Director isn't supposed to share any information like that with others. So, does she? You know her. Does she gossip about other employees? Is your workplace generally a gossipy place? You know better than we do how likely she is to spread this information.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:46 PM on March 25, 2008

If there is something specific that HR can do for you, could you just get a note from one of your caregivers specifying the need without necessarily specifying the reason?
posted by Skwirl at 11:51 PM on March 25, 2008

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