Reprinted from the "Workplace: Disclosure and Accommodations" issue of Visions Journal, 2018, 13 (4), p. 30
Whether you are looking for a job or already working, having a chronic health condition—including a substance use problem or a mental illness—can complicate life. The stigma surrounding mental illness and substance use creates stress and a layer of uncertainty.
If you are seeking employment, you may wonder if and when you should disclose your condition. Perhaps you are convinced that you should never disclose—or that disclosing your chronic health condition would be like raising a red flag that labels you as a problem employee. If you have been working with an employer for a while and you become ill or your condition worsens, you may face similar uncertainty about whether, when and how to disclose.
When I worked at Disability Alliance BC, we often received questions about when to disclose a disability or chronic illness to an employer and how to ask for appropriate accommodation. This article is based on Disability Alliance BC’s Disclosing Your Disability: A Legal Guide for People with Disabilities in BC, a resource funded by the Law Foundation of BC to help people understand their rights and to help them prepare for disclosure when necessary.1
Knowing your condition is key
If you are living with a chronic health condition, it’s important to understand how your condition affects your work and how to accommodate your health needs. It’s common for people with a chronic health condition to experience low self-esteem and loss of confidence. It’s important, however, to balance a negative or “deficit” view with the complete picture. This means acknowledging the strengths and adaptive skills you have developed to cope with your illness.
At first it can be difficult to recognize your own capabilities or see how your adaptive skills can be used in the workplace. Discussing your strengths and abilities with a trusted friend, family member or colleague can help you identify ways that your skills and knowledge might be transferred to an employment setting. For example, persistence, creative thinking and problem solving are all highly valued by employers.
Knowing how your strengths and skills might be used in a workplace, and what supports you may need, means you must also have a clear understanding of the job (or the potential job). Clarify with human resources or another appropriate contact any terms or tasks that are not well defined. It is normal for most job descriptions to include a general statement such as “additional duties as required.” Though you can ask for examples of what those duties might include, you likely won’t discover everything that may be asked of you. But knowing as much as possible about your employer’s expectations will help you make disclosure decisions.
To disclose or not to disclose?
Deciding whether to disclose a chronic health condition raises many questions. Some of the most common questions include
Am I legally required to disclose my disability during the job application process?
If my illness gets worse, what should I say to my employer?
How much information am I legally required to give? How much information can my employer legally ask for?
Could I simply say nothing at all?
It’s important to know that the only time you must disclose your condition is when it prevents you from doing your job properly or when it presents a safety risk to you or others. It’s vital that you understand the job, specific duties and the employer’s expectations in order to decide whether disclosure is necessary.
Before you’re hired
When you are preparing for a job interview, you may wonder if an employer is legally entitled to ask questions about illness or substance use issues. The fact is that an employer can ask you any questions about your ability to perform the duties required by the job. You might be asked about your ability to work night shifts, lift heavy items or travel if that’s what the job requires. You may also be asked if you have any physical or mental conditions that would affect your ability to perform job tasks. The employer’s questions must focus on the job function. The employer does not have the right to ask explicitly for your diagnosis or to inquire about your treatment.
If you suspect that you will need accommodation to do any of the duties of the job, you must respond honestly to an employer’s questions. Having a clear understanding of your own strengths and coping skills will enable you to respond positively about your ability to do the job with accommodation, and to briefly and confidently describe the accommodation best suited for you.
If you don’t need accommodation to participate in the interview and you’re not asked about your ability to perform specific tasks, many employment advisors recommend that you not disclose a chronic health condition until after you receive a job offer.
After you’re hired
If the conversation about your health condition and accommodation takes place after you have accepted a job offer, or even later in your employment with an organization, similar principles apply. Your employer is legally entitled to ask questions about the functional limitations caused by your health condition, as well as your prognosis—a doctor’s opinion about how your condition will change over time. But all of the employer’s requests for medical information must be made with the intention of creating appropriate accommodation. In all cases, your privacy must be protected. And in no circumstances does your employer need to know your diagnosis, although this issue may come up in a discussion of accommodation.
For more information on how and when to disclose, see Disclosing Your Disability.1
Under the BC Human Rights Code, people with disabilities are protected from discrimination.2 According to the courts, employers have a “duty to accommodate” an employee’s health condition or disability, with two exceptions: in cases of “undue hardship” and when there is a “bona fide occupational requirement” (BFOR). Both of these conditions are unique to the particular working environment and must be determined on a case-by-case basis.
An accommodation would be an undue hardship if it imposes unreasonable financial costs or health and safety risks or is unreasonable given the size and flexibility of the workplace. A BFOR is a job requirement or qualification that is essential to completing the job safely and efficiently. If a specific job duty or requirement is a BFOR, then the employer is not required to provide accommodation for that task. Usually, however, workplace accommodation for mental illness or substance use is inexpensive and may simply involve a change in policy or workflow.
Know your options
Discussing your disability and accommodation needs with your employer will be more comfortable and effective if you are well informed about suitable accommodation options. The Job Accommodation Network3 (see askjan.org/media/Psychiatric.html) lists examples of accommodation arranged according to type, including accommodations for health conditions that affect concentration, memory, organization, anxiety, sleep, personal interactions and time management. Accommodations may include workplace modifications to manage noise and visual distractions, flexible scheduling, work-from-home options, conflict resolution training and procedures in the workplace and day-to-day guidance and feedback.
If you decide to disclose your health condition to your employer, become knowledgeable about accommodation options and be confident about your strengths, skills and resilience. This confidence in your abilities will inspire the confidence of others and will enable you to better communicate your needs. Don’t be afraid to ask for accommodation. Accommodations are, after all, only workplace tools that we use to achieve our best possible performance.
For additional resources, worksheets, tips and real-life experiences, see Disclosing Your Disability at disabilityalliancebc.org/disclosureguide.
tips for disclosure
About the author
Shelley is a librarian and information specialist who develops online and face-to-face training courses to increase critical thinking and wisdom—in life and at work. Previously, she was a program director at Disability Alliance BC. She is the author of the legal resource Disclosing Your Disability. Contact her at [email protected]
Hourston, S. (2016). Disclosing your disability: A legal guide for people with disabilities in BC. Vancouver, BC: Disability Alliance of BC. http://disabilityalliancebc.org/disclosureguide/.
See section 13 of the BC Human Rights Code, at http://www.bclaws.ca/civix/document/id/complete/statreg/96210_01.
Loy, B. & Whetzel, M. (2015, October 22). Accommodation and compliance series: Employees with mental health impairments. Job Accommodation Network. https://askjan.org/media/Psychiatric.html.