Reasonable accommodations in the workplace (also known as reasonable adjustments in the UK) are a human right for people with disabilities. However, it may not be immediately obvious to employers or employees how that applies to people with mental illness. For those of us living with mental health conditions, it can be helpful to get some familiarity with what accommodations are and how they work before it starts getting to the point where it feels like you’re flailing at work.
When I requested an accommodation at my job as a nurse a few years ago, I waited until the flailing stage. I was only vaguely familiar with accommodations, and trying to do research on the topic was hard while I wasn’t feeling well and was really stressed out about work. When my employer started putting up roadblocks after I made my request, it all just seemed too overwhelming, and I ended up just giving up on it. Had I been more prepared ahead of time and had a better idea of what my options might be, I think I would have been more comfortable standing my ground.
Contributed by Ashley Peterson, you can contact her at: @MH_at_home
Even if you don’t think of your mental illness as a disability, entitlement to an accommodation is based on functioning rather than diagnosis. Just because some people might experience depression without being disabled doesn’t mean that you can’t experience disability with the same illness. A reasonable accommodation is not an advantage that’s being given to you, much as the mental illness voice in your head might tell you that it’s something you don’t deserve; rather, it’s about helping you do your job functions and putting you on the same level as workers who don’t have a disability.
Requesting an accommodation
Disclosing a mental illness at work can be a difficult decision, especially when there’s so much stigma around mental health conditions. While silence can be appealing, it can also be the source of a lot of stress, especially if your employer starts raising concerns about your performance.
One thing to keep in mind is that you don’t need to give your employer your diagnosis when requesting an accommodation, since the accommodation is based on functional impairment rather than your specific diagnosis. The employer is only entitled to enough information to establish what your functional limitations are so that they can figure out what can be done about them. If your employer is pressuring you for more personal medical information than you feel comfortable giving them, try consulting with a local disability charity to see if they can give you some guidance on what exactly employers are allowed to ask for based on the laws where you live.
You can start the process by notifying your employer in writing that you are requesting an accommodation because you have a disability (or medical condition, chronic illness, invisible illness, mental illness, or however else you’d like to phrase it) that’s making it difficult to do your job. If you are disclosing that you have a mental illness and you’re concerned about that being an excuse to brush you off, you might want to demonstrate right from the get-go that you’ve done your research.
You may not be sure what accommodations would be reasonable to ask for, and your employer might be just as clueless about reasonable adjustments for a mental health condition. However, there are some good resources available that can provide a good jumping off point both for you and for the employer; some of these are listed at the end of this article. When you make your initial request, lay out the particular areas of your job functioning in which you need support and provide some initial suggestions about accommodations you think would be helpful and how they would allow you to work better. Also, request that they review particular resources/websites that seem particularly relevant, so that these can be used as a starting point for your discussions moving forward.
Possible areas for accommodations
There are several areas where accommodations for mental illness-related disabilities can be implemented. One possibility is making changes to the work environment to support concentration, like modifying the physical workspace to reduce distractions, using noise-cancelling headphones, or working from home.
Another common area for accommodations is flexibility around scheduling. This may involve changes in start/end times, allowing more frequent breaks and access to a quiet area for them, allowing time off for medical/therapy appointments, allowing for a temporary reduction in hours, or allowing unpaid leaves.
Accommodations may also relate to the way that tasks are assigned and performed. This might involve giving written rather than verbal instructions, breaking large tasks into smaller pieces, allowing extra time for orientation or task completion, or restructuring job tasks to focus on things that are the best fit for your abilities.
Changes in supervision and feedback style could also be helpful, although this is perhaps one of the hardest things to ask for. The site Workplace Strategies for Mental Health has a section on supportive performance management that may be helpful: https://www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com/resources/performance-management
Disclosure to colleagues
Depending on what particular accommodations you have in the workplace, colleagues may notice and wonder why you’re getting what appears to be special treatment. They’re not entitled to know why you have an accommodation or what your disability is; the choice is yours whether or not to disclose. However, when people don’t have actual information, they may start to create their own stories, which can make the work environment uncomfortable for you.
Selective disclosure may allow you to have more control over the narrative. My own experience has been that colleagues were always more supportive than managers, and if you’ve gotten an accommodation, you’ve already had to disclose at least some bits to managers. While I never did end up getting accommodations, I did take time off for medical appointments and several extended periods of time off due to my mental illness over the course of my career. I liked that being open with colleagues allowed me to take control of my story; there was nothing to gossip about if I was telling people what was actually going on.
Your rights matter
Knowledge truly is power when it comes to knowing your rights and your options as a worker with a mental illness. Connecting with peers can also be really empowering. You’re not the only one dealing wit this. You have a lot to contribute, and even if stigma throws up barriers, you deserve to succeed, whatever success looks like for you. Again, an accommodation is not an advantage that you have to earn; it’s a human right.
- Australian Human Rights Commission – Workers with Mental Illness: A Practical Guide for Managers: https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/3-managing-mental-illness-workplace
- Mental Health Works – Mental Health in the Workplace: An Accommodation Guide for Managers and Staff: https://www.mentalhealthworks.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/CMHA_Mental-Health-Works-Guidebook-8.5-x11r.pdf
- Workplace Strategies for Mental Health: https://www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com
- Mental Health Foundation – Managing Mental Health Issues: https://mentalhealth.org.nz/workplaces-v2/managing-mental-health-issues
- ADA National Network – Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace and the ADA: https://adata.org/factsheet/health
- Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation: https://cpr.bu.edu/resources-and-information/reasonable-accommodations/
- Disability Law Center – FAQ: Reasonable Accommodation of Disabilities in Employment: https://cpr.bu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/FAQ-Reasonable-Accommodations.pdf
- Job Accommodation Network – Accommodation and Compliance: Mental Health Conditions: https://askjan.org/disabilities/Mental-Health-Conditions.cfm
- National Alliance on Mental Illness – NAMI (US): Succeeding at Work: https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Individuals-with-Mental-Illness/Succeeding-at-Work
- US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights: https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/depression-ptsd-other-mental-health-conditions-workplace-your-legal-rights
There’s also more information on workplace mental health and challenging stigma in other contexts in the Mental Health @ Home stigma reduction toolkit. https://mentalhealthathome.org/mhh-books/a-brief-history-of-stigma/