If you’ve suffered through a bout of depression as a working adult, you’re hardly alone. Around 18.8 million American adults—or around 9.5 percent of the population—have suffered from a depressive illness at some point in their life, and in a three-month period, workers with depression are absent an average of 4.8 workdays and suffer 11.5 days of reduced productivity [PDF].
But unlike physical illnesses, American workers have to face the secrecy and stigma often associated with mental illness as they seek treatment.
“Depression and anxiety are some of the leading causes of lost time and absenteeism in the workplace,” says Dania Douglas, State Advocacy Manager at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “[But] stigma and stereotypes are a reality in the workplace, and they’re actually something that really prevents a lot of people from seeking treatment.”
The good news: Things are changing. “It’s something a lot of CEOs are now starting to consider,” says Douglas. “They’re realizing that if they shove it into the shadows or stigmatize mental health conditions, it’s not good for business.”
So if you’re suffering from depression, here’s how you can make it work in the workplace.
1. DECIDE WHETHER YOU WANT TO DISCLOSE.
“Depression looks as unique as the human being who’s experiencing it,” says Mary Ann Baynton, Executive Director of Mindful Employer Canada, a non-profit which helps employers support employees with mental health conditions. “Some people will be very emotional and maybe crying. Some people will withdraw. Some people will become very irritable and negative. Some people will be joking around and getting their work done, but inside they’ll be dealing with negative thoughts.”
With that in mind, it’s up to you if you want to formally disclose your private battle to your employer. If you can obtain proper treatment—visits with a psychiatrist and counselor—without affecting your productivity, it may be worth keeping your depression private. Baynton recommends having a general conversation with your supervisor about flexibility in the workplace. “Disclosure isn’t a bad thing, but it’s also a personal thing,” she says. “If you just want a better way of working, focus the conversation on how you want to be a good employee and what you need in order to get your work done.”
Certain accommodations—like working from home or time off for medical appointments—can often be arranged without going through a formal process.
2. REQUEST A FORMAL ACCOMMODATION.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees with mental health conditions. In addition, employers are required to provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees, as long as the accommodations mean that those employees can perform the essential functions of their job and do not constitute an “undue burden” on the employer.
However, to receive a formal accommodation, you must be willing to disclose.
“Talk to your HR department, and find out what the process is,” says Douglas. “You will need medical documentation that you have some kind of disability. That can be a note from any type of doctor—a primary care doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist. Your workplace is not allowed to ask for any more documentation than is necessary.”
A common “reasonable accommodation” is a flexible work-from-home schedule, depending on the job. Another is time off for medical appointments, or quiet areas in the office to work.
“One that comes up a lot is how they want to have feedback,” says Baynton. “Depression often means that any feedback is seen as an attack, and that attack results in more negative thoughts. Come up with a very specific approach to receiving feedback.”
One thing that isn’t classified as a reasonable accommodation? A change of supervisor. “You can ask for a change in position, but that’s not under law considered a reasonable accommodation,” says Douglas. “It’s better to [phrase it] as an ask for a change in supervisory style.”
3. PUT EVERYTHING IN WRITING.
When you’re requesting accommodations, the best way to protect yourself is to document everything. “Print emails out and keep a written record,” says Douglas. “Requesting accommodations in writing is always a good idea. Ask for documentation from your employer.”
And if you feel like your employer isn’t adequately accommodating your needs, it’s important to call them on it—in writing as well.
“I would put it in writing,” says Baynton. “Not in an accusing, negative way, which is hard when you’re dealing with mental health issues. Get someone you trust to check what you send before you send it.”
Baynton recommends phrasing an objection as a solutions-oriented request, not as a complaint: “‘As your employee, I really want to be able to do a good job and contribute. I am dealing with a mental illness, as you know, and these are the things that I think are creating a challenge for me in terms of my mental health.’ Do it in a constructive, respectful way, one that addresses the facts and not the emotions.”
4. FILE A COMPLAINT.
If you feel that you have been terminated, demoted, or harassed because of a mental health condition, Douglas says, you can consult with an attorney and file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). But Douglas says it’s much more common that workplaces are supportive.
“The reality is, the bottom line is improved when people are healthy and able to do their work,” says Douglas. “There’s generally more acceptance of the fact that people with mental health conditions and disabilities bring a certain amount of diversity to the workplace—whether it be a different experience of living or a different way of thinking.”
5. REMEMBER: YOU CAN SUCCEED WITH DEPRESSION.
Just as a large percentage of the population have struggled with depression, a large portion of the population with mental health conditions have had successful careers.
“People with mental health conditions can and do succeed in pretty much every profession that’s out there,” says Douglas. “And work is a really important component of recovery for many people.”