How to Explain Your Depression to an Employer

4 minute read

By Jordana Weiss

If you’ve been struggling with your mental health or recently got a diagnosis of depression, you may be wondering how this will affect your work. Search online to learn more about this condition and how it may (or may not!) affect your career.

The average age for patients to be diagnosed with MDD or its shorter-term counterpart Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD) is 32 years old – right around the time that most of us are settling into our careers.

Depression and Your Career

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is the leading cause of disability in the United States today, and more than 16 million Americans suffer from MDD in any given year. While some people can compartmentalize and perform their jobs even with depression, others find that their performance and their ability to do the work they were hired to do declines as their mental health deteriorates.

You should never have to choose between your job and your mental health. If you’ve been diagnosed with depression, you are entitled to reasonable accommodations, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This landmark civil rights law was passed in 1990 and entitles all American workers to equal protection under the law.

What Should I Tell My Employer? 

If you’re struggling at work because of your depression, you need to know that you should never have to face discrimination because of your mental health. Employers are not obligated to hire someone who cannot complete the job safely and effectively, but according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, they cannot “rely on myths or stereotypes about your mental health condition when deciding whether you can perform a job or whether you pose a safety risk.”

Another important thing to know is that you are under no obligation to tell anyone at your place of employment anything about your mental health unless you would like to ask for an accommodation. If you’re close with your colleagues or your boss, they may inquire informally if they notice a change in your demeanor, but you’re under no obligation to discuss your private medical information at work. It’s your choice whether you want to keep it private or not.

There’s a lot of stigma about mental health, which is why some people avoid talking about any mental health issues they’re having, even if it’s seriously impacting their life. You may never know how beneficial a few changes in your work environment could be if you don’t ask for them.

How to Have the Discussion

If you have depression, you are entitled to reasonable accommodation at work. You will need to disclose the reason why you’re asking for an accommodation to your employer if you’re making a formal request, but otherwise, it does not need to be discussed.

If you would like to make a formal request for reasonable accommodation, start by talking to your supervisor or HR representative about your needs. It’s a good idea to get a reasonable accommodation before any performance issues arise – employers are under no obligation to forgive poor performance, even if you do have a mental or physical disability. It’s a good idea to spend some time thinking about what accommodation you would like before going in to talk to your superiors, so you can start the discussions on a positive and constructive note.

Some reasonable accommodations include time off to attend therapy, permission to work from home, or a quieter office environment. You may be asked to put your request in writing and explain why you’re requesting that specific accommodation. You may also be required to submit a letter from your health care provider, corroborating your diagnosis.

What Are My Rights?

If your suggestions are reasonable, your superiors should grant your request for accommodation. If you don’t feel like you’re able to do your job at all, reasonable accommodation may include unpaid leave so you can seek treatment. Another law, the Family and Medical Leave Act, allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave so they can deal with a “serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job.”

Unless the accommodation involves significant difficulty or expense, your employer must provide it for you. If they do not, any worker can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against discrimination. They can investigate any complaint and determine whether the ADA was violated. Unless your employer is also covered by local or state employee discrimination law, workers must register their complaint with the EEOC within 180 days of the initial violation.

What Should I Do If I’m Unfairly Discriminated Against?

If you feel like you’re facing harassment or discrimination from coworkers with regards to your depression or accommodation, talk to your superior or your HR representative. They should immediately step in to deal with any harassment and take steps to prevent it from happening in the future.

If you feel like you’re being overlooked for promotions or discriminated against by management because of your depression, you should consult the EEOC to discuss your options. Your employer cannot legally fire you or refuse to promote you because of your disability. They also cannot take retaliatory action if you register a complaint with the EEOC.

Everyone deserves to have positive, meaningful employment, regardless of their mental health. If you’re feeling like you’re unable to continue providing your employer with the best work possible because of your depression, it’s important to discuss it with them as soon as possible. Many people who fear this discussion with their superiors often find afterwards that they’re relieved everything is out in the open. You would never try and push beyond your limits if you broke your leg or were suffering from a physical disability – why should we think about our mental health differently?

Jordana Weiss