October 11, 2022

What If You Can’t Work Due to Mental Illness? 

Your mental illness may impact your ability to search for or successfully hold a job. This struggle doesn’t make you a failure. Work can be undoubtedly stressful, and some people find that their employment exacerbates their mental health symptoms. If you are struggling, here’s what you need to know

Understanding the ADA and Mental Illness

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) currently defines disability as a ‘physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.’ Therefore, as an employee, you have significant workplace rights protected under the ADA. 

In 2008, the ADA extended its act to broaden this definition further to help protect employees against employment-based discrimination. This means that an employer cannot hire or fire based on mental illness. They also cannot reject you for eligible promotions or force you to take leave. 

Should You Disclose Your Mental Illness at Work?

There is no universal answer that will apply to all job candidates or employees. Ultimately, it’s your decision what (and how much) you choose to share. 

You are legally entitled to your privacy. The fear of discrimination or breaching confidentiality is certainly legitimate. These fears may be particularly amplified if you work in a more toxic setting or if you don’t get along with your boss. Likewise, you just might not feel comfortable disclosing such a private part of your life. 

However, some employees find it helpful and relieving to discuss their situation with management. They find that having team support maintains their job performance. If you want understanding and accommodations, being honest about your struggles offers that opportunity.

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If you feel ambivalent about what to do, it may be helpful to make a list of pros and cons. Here are some other variables to consider:

Disclosure is optional: Under the ADA, employers cannot mandate that applicants or current employees disclose a disability. Therefore, disclosure is your choice, and you would not be considered lying or withholding should you choose to keep your situation private.

Medical exams: Some jobs require that applicants undergo medical exams before starting work. These exams may indicate a psychiatric disability. If that’s the case, an employer can only rescind the job offer if significant evidence reveals that the employee cannot perform the basic job duties without reasonable accommodations or if the mental illness creates legitimate safety concerns.

While on the job: Employers can ask for medical documentation if an employee asks for specific job accommodations. However, your medical information remains confidential, and your employer should avoid sharing that information with others.

Public sector/federal contractors: Some employers track the disability statuses of their potential applicants to track recruitment and hiring efforts. Additionally, some public and federal employers have more specific criteria for their job duties. In these cases, you may choose to voluntarily disclose your mental health status.

What Are Reasonable Job Accommodations?

There are numerous laws ensuring equal employment opportunities. Generally speaking, employees can request reasonable job accommodations to help them perform their duties more comfortably and efficiently. 

Keep in mind that your condition does not need to be severe or permanent. You should be eligible for accommodations as long as your mental health directly impacts your comfort or ability to perform specific tasks.

Overview of Job Accommodations

While every workplace is different (and every job description is unique), it’s best when employees and employers collaborate to discuss workplace accommodations. As an employee, it’s helpful to ask yourself, How might my mental illness impact my job? What specific support would help me the most? 

It’s okay if you don’t know exactly what you need. You and your employer can brainstorm potential options together. That said, some common job accommodations include:

  • Quieter work environments
  • Ability to work remotely sometimes or always
  • Frequent, regularly-scheduled breaks
  • Flexible scheduling to allow for taking medication or going to medical appointments
  • Using comfortable devices (headphones, listening to white noise, chairs)
  • Sharing or trading job tasks with other employees
  • Changing supervisors
  • Ongoing guidance and feedback about job performance 

Obtaining a reasonable job accommodation: The first step is asking for a specific accommodation. You can do this at any stage of your employment. Ideally, you should ask before problems occur (or before they become worse). Even though they cannot discriminate against you, employers do not have to excuse you for poor job performance or behavior. They also do not need to provide accommodations if it places undue hardships on the business. 

Putting it in writing: Your employer may request that you put your accommodation request in writing. They might also want you to discuss your condition and describe how it directly impacts your work. Some companies want medical documentation from a healthcare provider. If you do not want your work to know your particular diagnosis, you can request a general summary describing your health. 

Applying for family and medical leave act (FMLA): FMLA allows eligible employees to take an unpaid leave of absence from work for medical reasons. You are eligible for up to twelve weeks (in a 12-month period) if you are deemed unable to work due to your mental illness. Under FMLA, your employer must legally hold your job and any related health insurance benefits for the duration of your leave.

Other Tips for Working With a Mental Health Condition

It’s estimated that one in five Americans has a mental illness, so you’re certainly not alone when it comes to navigating your emotional well-being in the workplace. Sometimes, it’s not a feasible option to stop working. Other times, you may be able to appropriately manage your symptoms while performing your duties.

It’s important to note that mental illness lies on a wide spectrum. The severity and intensity of your symptoms may fluctuate based on specific life circumstances. In addition, some people find that the structure, creativity, and social aspects of work help improve their well-being.

Here are some tips to help you perform well at work while also taking care of yourself:

Consult with your employee assistance program (EAP): Your company may have an EAP, which refers to a program intended to support employees resolve personal issues that impact workplace performance. These programs are free to employees and may include legal services, nurse advice lines, and short-term counseling services.

Avoid workplace drama and gossip: Disengage from toxic workplace behavior as much as possible. Getting involved often coincides with aggravated mental health problems. Instead, try to be professional with your colleagues in all your interactions.

Know your optimal and sub-optimal work zones: Some people perform at their best in the early morning. Others get a surge of creative energy at nighttime. It may be helpful to overview your workweek on Monday morning and aim to get the most important, tedious tasks done when your energy levels are at their highest.

Stick with your treatment plan: It’s important to be consistent with medication, therapy, or other recommended lifestyle changes as they pertain to your mental health. It can be hard to stay motivated when things aren’t going well. But the more consistent you are with taking care of yourself, the better you will feel. 

Practice mindfulness often: If you frequently feel overwhelmed at work, try to slow down, breathe, and take breaks. As much as possible, aim to avoid multitasking, as that tends to increase errors. Although mindfulness isn’t a ‘cure’ for mental health distress, it can offer immediate relief during a rough moment.

Engage in ongoing self-care: Your personal life is just as important as your professional endeavors. Aim to prioritize self-care and stress management. Stick to a routine that honors both your physical and emotional needs and make sure you are getting plenty of rest

Evaluate if you need a new job: In some cases, a toxic work environment or boss can seriously impact your mental health. Problems with burnout, in particular, often contribute to more anxiety or depression. It may be helpful to truly consider whether a new job will better support your well-being. 

How Can You Seek Financial Support When You Can’t Work? 

If you’re unable to work due to mental illness, you have options. You may be eligible for support under both federal and state programs. Here are some of the most common means of financial assistance: 

Social security income (SSI): SSI refers to federal cash assistance for people earning little to no income. SSI is reserved for people over the age of 65 or people of any age who are blind or have disabilities. The amount of money ranges based on your income, location, and living arrangements. Visit the Social Security Administration (SSA) website to determine your eligibility for SSI benefits.

Social security disability insurance (SSDI): SSDI offers monthly financial assistance to people who become disabled before retirement age. Disabilities can be physical or mental. These benefits can remain in effect for as long as you are disabled or until you turn 65. At 65, retirement benefits apply.

Medical assistance: In most cases, if you are eligible for SSI or have income below your state’s poverty wages, you will be eligible for free healthcare for you and any dependents. Sometimes, this approval is automatic. Other times, you may need to fill out an application through your state’s Medicaid program.

Supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP): SNAP is the largest government-assisted program to help low-income families with food. All 50 states offer some form of SNAP benefits. Preloaded cards are refilled each month and can be used to purchase eligible food items. People with disabilities are often eligible to receive benefits. 

Disability insurance: Some people opt to purchase short-term or long-term disability policies to hedge against financial concerns. You typically pay a monthly or annual premium- if a disability impacts your ability to work, you will be eligible to receive monthly payments. Some employers also offer these plans to their employees.

What If You Suspect You’re Being Discriminated Against at Work?

Managing a mental illness can be challenging enough. The situation becomes far more difficult if you encounter workplace discrimination. Remember that there are federal and state laws protecting your well-being.

If a direct colleague or supervisor is harassing you, consider reporting them to your HR. Document the situation and provide any necessary details. Aim to be as objective as possible when presenting your claim.

If you suspect you’re being discriminated against due to your mental health, you can file a complaint with the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). You can also file a lawsuit against your employer or company. Remember that it is illegal for employers to retaliate against employees for filing charges or complaining to the EEOC. 

Final Thoughts

Your mental health is undoubtedly important. Neglecting it due to work almost always backfires. Remember that, no matter your specific circumstances, you have many options for taking care of yourself and receiving support. 

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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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