Disclosing your mental health to your employer

In this post, Bethany talks about the importance of disclosing mental health issues to employers and the university, and how it can make working whilst battling a mental health problem a lot less tough.

I took on my very first job when I was going into the first year of my undergraduate studies in the United States. I didn’t necessarily need to work, but I thought that working might offer me some financial independence and allow me to feel more like an adult.

What I quickly came to realise was that working while struggling with mental health can be really difficult, and it’s something that I find not many people want to talk about. Or, like with imposter syndrome, maybe it’s something that we just don’t know how to talk about.

The first year went okay; I was working on the weekends and spending my weekdays relaxing or picking up occasional babysitting jobs. There wasn’t really much going on, and the idea of a “mental health day” was foreign to me because I wasn’t facing much pressure.

But once term-time started up and I moved onto campus and tried to get my bearings with my very full course load, suddenly work became more of a hinderance than a help, even with that extra cash flowing in and keeping me out of overdraft.

At first (and this hearkens back to the imposter syndrome, I think), I kept asking myself why work was so hard. After all, I’d kept the same shift, I knew the job well, and although we had a larger intake of people to deal with (I worked at the university’s food service as a weekend cashier), I enjoyed meeting new people and conversing with regular faces that passed by every weekend. But with the extra mental energy I now had to allocate towards school work, those summer days spent doing luxury reading and taking road trips weren’t able to keep restoring my mental health.

I’ve struggled with depression through most of my teenage and adult life, bouncing from therapist to therapist, being re-diagnosed every time, and one of my biggest fears was that telling anyone that I was struggling with mental health issues would automatically set me at a disadvantage. I assumed I’d be a less valuable employee, that universities might see me as a risk to take on, that friends wouldn’t want to be around me for fear I’d “bring them down”. And I’ll be honest – to an extent, mental health might be a factor in some of these decisions.

But ultimately, what I’ve learned throughout the years and through several work experiences is that disclosure protects you and can be to your advantage. It’s scary to disclose mental health issues, I’m not saying by any means that it’s easy – but disclosing in particular ways can actually help you as you go into university and the workforce.

I first discovered this when I came back to England for my PhD. I’d done my Masters at Lancaster and had taken a year out, during which time, I had a particularly rough cancer journey with an acute form of leukaemia, and the treatment left me paralysed.

After a month of intense physical therapy, I was let out of the hospital, but three months of being confined to bed and in and out of coma had taken a massive toll on me, both mentally and physically. Where before I’d been able to work an eight-hour shift and deal with the subsequent exhaustion by sleeping for twelve hours straight, I found that I was no longer able to sleep more than three or four hours a night, my anxiety was through the roof, my PTSD medications made me pass out if I stood up too quickly, I couldn’t lift anything heavier than a notebook, and my depression became severe as I grieved and compared my new normals to how I had been in the past.

I set a goal for myself to get back to England and start my PhD, with the first checkpoint being the ability to get on the plane without any assistance. Once I met that goal and got back to Lancaster, I faced a new challenge: how to afford the things that I needed when my loan money could only get me so far. Over the summer, I had been able to hold a job with a company that allowed me to do all of my work online, but so much of it revolved around making phone calls (which already made me anxious) and meeting strict deadlines that even taking one day off a week to look after myself wasn’t feasible. I ended up having to resign from that position because – through no fault of their own – my bosses weren’t able to meet the new demands that my journey had forced upon me.

It was heart-wrenching and yet another blow to my morale to lose such an amazing position because I just thought to myself that if I couldn’t manage to hold an online job, I probably couldn’t do anything else. I interviewed for a job on campus that had long hours and involved a lot of physical activity, and during the interview, I mentioned that I had some trouble with stairs because of the paralysis. While that wasn’t the deciding factor in why I didn’t get the position, I spent a lot of time reflecting on that interview and how my limitations would cost me loads of jobs in the future if I told potential employers about them. I didn’t even want to tell the university in my application that I had a disability! I kept thinking, what if they don’t want me because I’m just a liability? I may be a hard-working person, but until someone gets to know me, they may not see that. What if they can’t look past the outside? What if in that short interview, they don’t understand that I’m not defined by my physical body but by my quick wit, passionate work ethic, and genuine care about my work?

I spent way too long agonising over these things. One day, after a conversation with someone in administration about these issues, I was offered a perfect job at the university doing something that I loved. The woman who offered me the position knew about my depression and my physical limitations, but she also knew that I was incredibly hard-working and would get the job done. Having my boss know that I struggled with mental health proved to be an incredible weight lifted off of me as I worked. If I needed a mental health day to recover, she understood, and she knew that I would get the work done as quickly as possible when I could. More than anything, I could allow myself to rest guilt-free on days when I needed to just relax and recharge because I knew that my boss trusted me.

When I decided to intercalate a few months later, I had to give up the position, and it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made because I truly loved what I was working on and it allowed me to connect with so many different people. The job truly brought me life, even when it was exhausting, and it was painful to let go. But it taught me some valuable lessons.

I cannot stress how important disclosure is to a potential employer or to the university. I’ve had so many conversations with people about this in the past few weeks, and to sum all of those conversations up, if an employer decides not to work with you because of disclosure about your mental health, then that job was not the right fit for you. If you’re struggling with mental health, the best job you can find is the job that will work with you to accommodate you when you need it. That’s not to say that you can walk into a forty-hour-a-week job and say you’re only going to work ten hours a week. That’s not how life works.

What I mean to say is that if you know yourself well enough to know how you work and that you will need mental health days, that’s something you can negotiate with an employer.

I once told an employer that I needed Fridays off so that I could have a large chunk of time over the weekend to recharge. I told them that to offset this, I’d work an extra hour per day the other four days of the week to make up for the time lost (it was a part-time job). They decided to take a gamble on me, and it really paid off for them: at my annual review, they told me that I was one of the hardest working members of the company and that I was invaluable to them. I knew myself well enough to know that I would get my work done properly if I could have a larger block of time to recover over the weekend, and ultimately, knowing this made me a more productive employee. Instead of hitting a mid-week slump, I was able to power through and accomplish everything on my to-do lists.

If you’re worried about trying to bargain with an employer over hours, keep in mind that in an eight-hour work day, most people are usually at most getting six hours of work in anyway. There are coffee breaks and break-time chats with co-workers and many people take an hour for lunch. If it eases your guilt over disclosing mental health, just remember that what you’re doing is letting your potential employer know up front that you know who you are and how you work best. There may be jobs where this kind of schedule doesn’t work, or you may not function best the same way I do. The point is that if you go into an interview with an action plan and the will to negotiate, you may be surprised at how willing an employer is to work with you, even on a trial basis. Most employers value employees who know themselves well enough to negotiate over employees who make promises that they can’t fulfill.

Going back to what I mentioned above, if you disclose your struggles with mental health to an employer and go through an action plan with them and they choose not to hire you, this likely means that no matter how dreamy that job sounded, it wasn’t a good fit for you.

Imagine getting the job without disclosing or negotiating, knowing that you don’t have the energy to keep pace in the work environment. That kind of toxicity is going to play into guilt and other negative emotions that can keep you from performing your best, and ultimately, you may not be able to rest and relax the way you need to in order to keep moving forward.

As I mentioned in my last post, work and university are not the ultimate goal in life. There must be a balance between work and life, and if you use all of your energy resources towards functioning “like everyone else” in a work environment, you’re unlikely to get the fulfillment out of life that can bring you joy and happiness. Remember that the work-life balance is a balance for a reason – you can’t expend all of your energy on either side, you need to distribute it evenly, and that means getting to know yourself well enough to ask for the assistance you need.

On that note, I just want to briefly mention why disclosing mental health to the university is important. Universities don’t ask if you struggle with mental health as a form of discrimination. It would be illegal for that to be a deciding factor in your acceptance. They ask this question because they need to know how to best support their students.

If you struggle with mental health or physical or mental disability, the university should be able to support you to the best of its ability, through counselling services, accessible options, and accommodations within your coursework.

If you feel that you’re struggling at university and there’s something that could make it better then it’s important that you get in touch and ask for these accommodations. I recently went through my confirmation panel for the PhD and asked if I could record the session because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to take notes properly because I have a learning disability. After a quick check with relevant staff, my request was approved and I found the experience so much less terrifying because of it. Sure, the university could deny your request if they feel it’s unreasonable, but your success as a student shouldn’t have to be compromised by a fear of rejection.

There is nothing wrong with asking for assistance, and you may find that you perform better when you start to ask for what you need to succeed!

Bethany Dahlstrom just completed her second-year confirmation as a PhD student in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University. Having been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder at a relatively young age, she’s spent most of her academic career trying to maintain a healthy balance between work and life, and this is often interrupted by anxiety, chronic depressive episodes (after re-diagnosis), ADHD, and PTSD.

After going through some of the mindfulness sessions offered by FASS for PhD students, she was able to form a vocabulary to define her feelings of unrest and anxiety: imposter syndrome.

In a few short blog posts, she’ll be addressing some of the issues she’s faced in order to try to help other students understand that they are not alone in their anxieties and frustrations and that these feelings can be overcome.

For confidential support with mental health or suicidal feelings, call Samaritans on 116 123.

If you are experiencing problems that are affecting your studies or general wellbeing, get in touch with the University’s Counselling and Mental Health and Wellbeing services.