05/11/2012 06:08 EDT | Updated 07/11/2012 05:12 EDT

When Mental Illness and Work Don't Mix


There is so much stigma surrounding mental illness that it can be difficult to reveal to our loved ones or our friends. Mental illness is just that: an illness. Would you ever hesitate to tell your boss the reason that you have a runny nose is because you have the flu? The obvious answer to that question is, no we wouldn't hesitate to tell our employer the cause of our physical symptoms. Then why do we hesitate to talk to our employer about what's causing us to not eat, not sleep, why we sound like we have a rude tone in our voice?

It is because of the amount of stigma and stereotypes associated with mental illness. Many of us are ashamed, when in reality we should be proud that we know what is causing us so much hurt and pain, and that we are seeking treatment.

I understand the need for a professional relationship with your employer, but our health does affect us in the workplace. If at any point an illness or our health does affect us in the workplace we must have a conversation with our employer. It is your obligation as an employee to tell your employer what is plaguing you and what they can do to accommodate you.

I have experienced both employers who have accommodated me and those who haven't. The employer who chose not to accommodate me called me into their office and said they noticed a change in my attitude. I thanked my employer for noticing a change and said, in fact, I was feeling a change in my emotional health. I attributed that change to my diagnosed depression and asked if my employer had any questions about my diagnosis. I was more than happy to provide documentation from my family physician.

While I am a firm believer in living as normal a life as possible, including not skipping work, I did ask that employer for reduced hours so I could seek out treatment. My employer told me that as long as I was feeling depressed they didn't want me working at all. They didn't want documentation from my doctor -- as long as they suspected my mental illness was plaguing me, I was not to be working. If I showed up to work and they suspected I was depressed, I'd be sent home without pay. If my mental illness continued to be a problem I would be terminated with cause.

Depending on your jurisdiction you may be protected by the law. In some jurisdictions, mental illness is considered a disability (though you should never let it disable you) and as a disability your employer needs to reasonably accommodate you. I am not a lawyer so I recommend you talk to a lawyer in your jurisdiction to find out what the laws are in your area, and if mental illness is covered under the law.

In my jurisdiction I had the law on my side. I obtained legal counsel, and took successful legal action against my now ex-employer. I hesitated to take legal action but looking back I'm glad I did and I was happy to right a wrong.

It's not all bad though. My current employer is absolutely wonderful. Before I was hired, I took a risk and told my manager I lived with mental illness and while I could function as expected in the workplace, there may be occasions when I need to take an extra break, go home early or even take a day off of work.

I have even been able to identify what triggers my anxiety so my employer can help take measures to ensure I don't encounter such situations. I have also told my employer how to tell that when I may not be feeling well and some symptoms that accompany my mental illness. I believe this dialogue has allowed me to have a more open relationship with my employer. In fact, I also believe it has prevented me from taking time off of work for my mental illness. My dream is that anybody living with mental illness can have the same dialogue with their employers that I currently enjoy.

Last year, I was the subject of the documentary 'Working Life' about the stigma surrounding mental illness in the workplace. The film was produced by Skyworks Charitable Foundation in partnership with Oolagen Youth Mental Health in Toronto.