Navigating Work Relationships and Mental Illness

Author: Violette Kay
There are many reasons one might choose not to disclose their mental illness at work such as the fear of being judged and seen as a liability or the fear of losing your job. But you might not want to disclose it because you feel it is on a need-to-know basis and perhaps you feel that your employers don’t need to know.
At the same time there are just as many reasons one might decide they want to be open about their illness at work: it could be freeing or empowering to disclose your illness, or an opportunity to educate and pave the way for other mentally ill employees to find supportive workplaces? Perhaps you just don’t see a reason to keep your illness hidden.
Whatever your reasoning, it is entirely your choice.
In my experience, I’ve chosen to disclose. I am employed through a program for people with disabilities. My employers are aware that I have bipolar disorder, but they have the decency (and probably some kind of legal/professional obligation) not to mention any of it in front of my coworkers- not the illness nor the logistics of the employment program.
I had a colleague who knew of my illness and over time I found a powerful ally in her. She showed up on my doorstep one time after I had disappeared for days on end without contacting anyone at work. She discreetly ordered food for me at all work functions because I have terrible anxiety over ordering food. Most importantly she defended and advocated for me when I was not around to do it myself. But soon she left to pursue other aspirations. In fact, there was a significant wave of turnover at my workplace. At some point it dawned on me that aside from my boss, everyone who knew about my illness was gone.
This was both good and bad news. Good because I was given a clean slate, a set of people who knew nothing about me and hadn’t been around during my periods of extremely spotty attendance or seen me struggle to do the bare minimum. They had never had to pick up the pieces I left when I abruptly disappeared into long periods of sick leave. My new coworkers have only ever seen the best of me: “The Violette Effect” – what they call it when I swoop in and “save the day”. They say it almost daily. I wish I could see myself through their eyes, untainted by my history. I like that I’m not constantly fighting to regain their trust, since I never lost it to begin with.
On the flipside I feel dishonest somehow, like everything they know about me is wrong and one day the truth will come out and disappoint them terribly. One time I mumbled something in passing about not being “just a regular person who works here”. A new coworker asked: “Why not?” I thought: “Obviously I’m going to tell him.” I opened my mouth to speak… but I couldn’t do it. I froze for just a little too long, then muttered some cop-out along the lines of “I’m just… trash”.
For days I couldn’t stop replaying the conversation in my head. Why couldn’t I just say it? I know I don’t have to tell them anything. No matter how friendly you are with your coworkers, there is nothing wrong with keeping some parts of your life to yourself. But I want them to know me. I like them. I want them to know.
I still haven’t figured it out. I trust that at some point there will be another opportunity to say it. At this point there’s a 50/50 chance they’ve looked on my social media and figured it out. Or maybe they’ll find out the hard way, when the “Violette Effect” comes to a screeching halt. Until then, I find solace in the fact that at least my boss knows. At least there’s that. I spend every workday doing everything I can to maintain the trust between my boss and I. Not out of fear, not out of shame (though I do carry a lot of shame), but out of gratitude. After all my workplace has done to support me though illness and recovery, I feel a responsibility to let them know how much I appreciate them, both by “saving the day” in small ways daily, and by working on myself to build lasting stability, so that I can continue to be the employee – and the person – they were willing to take a chance on back when we first met.
I know I am lucky and not everyone can safely be open about their illnesses at work. I’m not suggesting that coming out with your mental illness is a foolproof route to support and acceptance. You know your workplace best; read the room, and if it feels right go for it! But you absolutely don’t have to. This is your truth, and it’s yours to share, or not share, with whomever you choose.
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