A gateway to understanding and growth
From "Workplace: Disclosure and Accommodations" issue of Visions Journal, 2018, 13 (4), p. 8
My first workplace disclosures were recent, and they all came on in a rush.
Despite many years of employment in the area of project management, I’d never disclosed my bipolar diagnosis at work. Then, last fall, I made four disclosures in a row, all within just a few weeks of each other. Now that the dust is settling, I’m starting to gain a clearer picture of what unfolded and what the implications were (and still are) for me as an employee.
The first disclosure was to my supervisor in my temporary project management position. John called me in to his office to give me feedback on an incident that had occurred earlier in the week: “We’ve had a complaint about an interaction you had with another team member. You left her feeling so upset that she felt she had to bring it to my attention.”/p>
I remembered the incident quite clearly. It had happened on a day that my depression and exhaustion had reached a peak. I quietly acknowledged the feedback. But John had more to say: “There’s also a broader concern about how you fit in with the team as a whole, and several other managers have reported concerns about your performance.” A long silence followed, with John holding my gaze.
I could hardly deny it. He was right: I had been having considerable struggles due to depression, and I guess it was only natural that others would notice.
The silence continued.
And then, for some reason, I decided to spill the beans. I think it was because I liked John* and I trusted him. I told him of my diagnosis, and of the struggles I’d had lately at work. John seemed understanding and accepting of everything I said. I felt as though a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and I left the meeting feeling that maybe my workplace difficulties would decrease.
It was not quite so simple.
Two days later, Claire,* another manager, called me in to her office for a debrief on a project meeting. The feedback was broadly similar to the feedback from John: “You were absent and unfocused, and you hardly contributed throughout the entire meeting.” Again, I accepted the feedback. I felt I owed Claire an explanation, too, so I disclosed my diagnosis to her as well, and shared some of my struggles. Once again, my disclosure was met with sympathetic understanding, and I left feeling that my sharing had been a positive thing.
My positive feelings increased a couple of days later, when Claire told me that another manager might have a longer-term position for me, at a higher pay grade. What’s more, she’d already set up an interview for me. Things were unfolding so nicely that I had no problem with her one stipulation—that I again disclose my diagnosis in my interview with the other manager.
I met with the new manager, Joanne,* on a Friday afternoon, the day before I was to set off on a previously planned vacation. Halfway through the interview, I made my disclosure as agreed, and I was amazed at how quickly the tone of the meeting changed—for the better. Joanne shared how a member of her family had the same diagnosis as me, and how she would make any accommodations necessary to have me be part of her team. By the end of the interview, Joanne and I were best friends, and I was all set to return from my vacation to a better job, at a higher rate of pay. I was extremely satisfied with my newfound disclosure skills!
But, of course, pride often comes before a fall. Fast-forward two weeks: I came back from vacation, eager to get started in my new position, but something was clearly wrong. A training session had gone ahead without me. The room had been rearranged, and there wasn’t a workstation for me. I met with Joanne, anxious to get things straightened out.
And then the hammer dropped.
“I’m sorry, there’s been a mix-up and there is no new job for you,” Joanne told me. “I need you to return to your original position, which will likely end in a couple of weeks.”
I was speechless and devastated.
In the tide of emotional turmoil, I was convinced I’d been discriminated against. I put my thoughts down in an email, clicked “send,” and very quickly found myself in a meeting with the head of Human Resources. To my disappointment, she told me, “I’m sorry, but Joanne had no authority to offer you the job. Because of your challenges dealing with people and staying on top of details, you were quite simply never on our radar for any of the longer-term positions. If you choose to advance your allegations of discrimination, you won’t have the HR department on your side.”
I decided to accept the assessment I was being offered, and I quietly dropped any discussion of discrimination.
Some weeks later, my temporary position ended, and as I write this article in a JJ Bean coffee shop on a sunny winter afternoon, I am waiting for a new work opportunity to turn up. To be honest, I still feel bitter and frustrated by how bipolar disorder keeps intruding into every aspect of my life. But I’m also finding ways to learn from my disclosure experience.
First, it’s important to me to find a permanent position where there is the potential to explore workplace accommodations ahead of time—before things get out of hand. In other words, I would like to work for an employer who is open to setting up an environment that is fine-tuned to provide me with the supports I need to perform the job well, rather than me asking for support after something goes wrong.
Second, my disclosure has helped me to realize that while managers may be generally sympathetic about mental illness, their primary concern is workplace performance. I believe I’ll still be ready to disclose in the future, but I’ll also be more likely to come forward with realistic proposals for accommodations that could support my performance.
Finally, I’m seriously questioning whether I’m a good fit for the demands of project management, which requires constant and continuous attention to details and dates. I am exploring other career avenues, and I am considering going back to school to train in counselling and peer support. I have also started volunteering with two social service providers in the Downtown Eastside.
I’m optimistic that I’ll be able to look back at my “disclosure phase” in a few years and see a time of great learning and change. I hope I will also be able to say that it was the gateway to a new and more satisfying career.
About the author
After a lengthy career as a project manager in the public sector, Neil has recently started working as a peer support and mental health worker in two different organizations in the Lower Mainland