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If You Have A Mental Illness, Should You Tell Your Employer?

Nearly 10 million people in the U.S. live with a serious mental illness, and for many, that complicates finding and maintaining work. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
Nearly 10 million people in the U.S. live with a serious mental illness, and for many, that complicates finding and maintaining work. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

Nearly 10 million people in the U.S. live with a serious mental illness.

ForTaylor Nieman, who has bipolar disorder, holding down consistent work has proven difficult, and she has struggled deciding whether or not to tell employers about her illness — a choice psychologist and lawyerSusan Goldbergsays is difficult to make due to a variety of factors.

“We did research on people with psychiatric disabilities, and we found that the experts all had divergent ideas of [whether] to disclose or not to disclose for employment,” says Goldberg, who is alsoan assistant professor of psychology at Duquesne University.“Certain people, usually attorneys, said never disclose, and vocational rehab people said always disclose.”

That is why Goldberg recommends assessing each situation individually, then selectively disclosing informationbased on considerations of person, place, time and content.

Selective disclosure of person, for instance, Goldberg tellsHere & Now’s Peter O’Dowd, means that an employee trusts their supervisor enough to discuss their mental illness with them, as wasthe case forNieman, who currently works in a flexible position at a solar company. She felt comfortable disclosing her illness to her boss after she was told the company has an open-door policy on talking about personal problems.

“My manager right off the bat, maybe after like a month or so, told me, ‘Hey, if you’re having any issues, if anything’s going on and you need to talk to me … you come to me and tell me what’s going on,’ ” says Nieman. “And so I felt comfortable.

“So I told my boss that I suffer from bipolar disorder. I love work, and I want to come to work, but some days, I just can’t get out the door for that reason.”

Interview Highlights

On research into this issue and the method of selective disclosure

Susan Goldberg: “What we found that people with psychiatric disabilities did is figure out their own way. … Some people chose to disclose. Some people chose never to disclose. But what I found was generally the most successful was selective disclosure of person, place, time and content.

“Selective disclosure of person would mean that you really trust this supervisor or this HR person that you disclose to. Selective disclosure of place has to do with the kind of entity you are working for. If it’s in a small business, you may not want to disclose. A large business that knows about [the Americans with Disabilities Act], you may find it helpful to disclose. Selective disclosure of time means deciding when to disclose. Some people only disclose immediately before they need accommodation, so they may have never disclosed for years, and then they needed to take time off, like Taylor said she needed, and then they would disclose at that point.

“And selective disclosure of content is a really cool one. It’s not disclosing the whole thing, like not saying, ‘I have bipolar disorder’ or ‘I have schizophrenia,’ because people even now stigmatize people with such disabilities, but to say, ‘I have a problem, and I take some pills’ or ‘I’m a little anxious, and I take some pills.’ So you can limit the amount of content you share, while still asking for an accommodation.”

On whether employers are by and large accommodating to employees with mental illnesses

Goldberg: “I can’t say yes or no. Every case is different. We had stories like one woman [who] told the HR person as she was supposed to, and the secretary to the HR person had to get involved by passing it to the supervisor of the HR person, and the secretary then told everybody.

“There is such variety on how trusting you can be with someone, and sometimes they don’t even know that they’re violating a trust. They may just say, ‘Hey, I heard that you’re sick’ or ‘I heard that you were hospitalized,’ and they may not even realize how offensive that is to some people and what problems that causes. So I wouldn’t say that people are always accommodating or never accommodating. I think it really depends on the individual.”

Nieman, on finding her current job after struggling to keep previous jobs because of her illness

Taylor Nieman: “I would just quit the job and then move to a different apartment — tried all these things besides getting care and not actually addressing the root cause, which was the mental illness. And so now that I can do that, I’ve actually finally found a job and a situation where if I need to back off from work and come in as needed, I can do that. I have the freedom to do that.”

On whether her illness has changed her expectations for future careers

Nieman: “It really has. I think part of it too — and this might be a little bit of what being bipolar is — is you get these ideas in your head, and you get really passionate about things, and it’s kind of like go go go, and you want to do this and you want to do that, and so you get hyper-focused on things.

“When I had first started college, I wanted to be an archaeologist, and then I wanted to be an artist, and I just couldn’t stay focused on one thing, and then I wanted to be a hairstylist, and I actually completed that and I did that for a little bit, and then I changed again. I think I just can’t stay focused on anything, so that’s my problem: I just I want to do too many things, and I don’t know what I want to do most of the time.”

On the difficulties of disclosing information about mental health to employers

Goldberg: “It can be very hard. Then another aspect of it is if you don’t disclose, you feel like you’re hiding a secret or you have no one to share it with at work. So there are many aspects of it, but I also think people who stay in low-wage jobs for fear of going into a higher-wage job also feel stress by not rising to their full potential, so that there are people who have the potential to do better and are just afraid, and sometimes vocational rehabilitation people scare them and say, ‘Oh, you can’t do a higher-level job,’ and I don’t think that’s that’s wise. I think people should aim as high as they can aim and just find a way to manage. Not to say that it’s easy, but it’s going to be stressful at a low wage for reasons of having a low wage, and it’s going to be stressful at a high wage.”

Jill Ryan produced this interview, and Chris Bentley edited it for broadcast. Jackson Cote adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.