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Mental Health

The Elephant in the Room

Disclosure and transitions

Kyla*

Reprinted from "Workplace: Transitions" issue of Visions Journal, 2016, 11 (3), pp. 22-24

When you live with a mental illness, an elephant is always in the room. Do you disclose what you are going through, and risk exposing yourself to discrimination, or do you keep silent about your experiences?

In the fall of 2015, I landed a new job as an insurance broker. In my last role, I had spent three years working in administration for a reputable life insurance company. Getting a new job was quite the feat, considering I was not able to use my last employer as a reference.

In the months before I was offered the new job, from January to August 2015, I had been on short-term disability. Prior to my going on disability, the life insurance company I was working for had experienced two years of chronic understaffing. Staff morale was low. Repeated requests by supervisors for additional staff had gone unheard.

In addition to being overworked, I had recently been diagnosed with bipolar depression, and I was adjusting to new medication. The combination of work pressure and a new mental health diagnosis was challenging, but I continued to do my best.

One morning I received an odd email from my new supervisor, Bertha.* Bertha informed me that I owed the company work time and that I would have to make up the hours during that pay period or the equivalent amount would come off my next cheque. This made no sense to me: I had already banked so much extra time! I went to speak with Bertha in person: I couldn't afford to take a smaller paycheque, and I wanted more time to look into the discrepancy myself. But Bertha dismissed my request without even looking up from her computer!

I emailed the manager of the department, Jane,* and asked for a meeting in order to sort out the confusion. Jane called me into her office, and I immediately described the distressing interaction I’d had with Bertha. Jane explained that she was trying to teach Bertha how to relate to people. Before I'd had a chance to process this, Jane asked, "Kyla, you don't seem like your normal bubbly self lately. Are you okay?"

A harried work environment, unhappy co-workers, new meds...and I'd just had a horrible interaction with my immediate supervisor: Jane's question took me off-guard. I was honest and said, "Actually, not really. The truth is, last year I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I am adjusting to new medications and the workload here is too much."

Suddenly, the meeting went in a completely new direction. Jane seemed to ignore all my feedback about Bertha. Instead, the subject of the meeting became mental illness. Jane talked for what seemed like an eternity about her best friend who had bipolar disorder and had to talk herself out of bed every day. Jane told me that she understood and that she would tell no one.

At the end of the meeting, we resolved the hours discrepancy. In fact, the hours had been recorded incorrectly, and the company actually owed me a half day off. Then Jane hugged me and told me to do my best. It was then that the stress of the situation caught up with me and I began to cry. It was embarrassing as hell.

Following my disclosure, the atmosphere at work began to change. My first clue was a note from Jane informing me that I was to work an additional three hours, which would be added to the half day I was owed to equal a full day—which I was not allowed to take earlier than October. What?!? The company owed me time—not the other way around! The tone of emails began to shift. Though my co-workers remained supportive, I began to receive the silent treatment from Jane and Bertha.

A close friend who has held various senior management positions later told me that by disclosing my mental illness I had committed career suicide. She thought two consequences were likely. First, I would never get another promotion or raise. Second, there would suddenly be reasons found (or created) to fire me.

I found her predictions hard to believe. Three short months prior I had been promoted and sent to the head office in Quebec to help develop a training program for our department. My January 2014 review stated that I stood out amongst my peers, that I continuously sought ways to improve procedures—that I met company expectations in all areas.

But by January 2015, five months after I made my disclosure of mental illness, my review was overwhelmingly negative. I was at risk of being fired. I was being put on an improvement program and, if I did not meet expectations, there would be consequences. Jane informed me I was not the right fit for the company, that I had been hired and promoted by mistake. That I was an embarrassment to the company and to her.

On the day of the 2015 review, I was subjected to two hours of tag-team-style criticism by Jane and Bertha. Their comments were full of embellishments and untruths, and things were taken out of context. I was repeatedly asked, "So you only do your best depending on your mood swings?" It was mentally devastating.

The truth was that I was good at my job and took pride in the quality of my work. Though I had struggled with my diagnosis, I received no accommodations from supervisory staff, even after I made my disclosure and admitted that I found the workload overwhelming. Quite the opposite: even though Jane had told me she "understood," she also made clear to me that I was to leave my mental illness at home.

I left the review feeling worthless. The next day, I returned to the office to quit. My old supervisor urged me not to and to see my doctor instead. My doctor had been documenting the change in the workplace following my disclosure of mental illness. During that period, he had continued to make medication adjustments so I could cope with the stress of work. As time went on, he felt we might have a case for workplace discrimination. That day, after I spoke with my old supervisor, I made an appointment. What happened next was nothing short of a miracle. My doctor phoned HR and told them I would not be coming in the next day and that he was putting me on immediate medical leave.

With the stress, I turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism. My doctor sent me to my local public health unit for emotional support. My concurrent disorders counsellor referred me to SMART Recovery meetings at Daytox. SMART helped empower me to make healthy choices to cope with the emotional toll of this experience. I also found The Mindful Way through Depression1 to be a helpful tool.

In the end, I decided against taking legal action. Instead, I focused on myself. I looked at what the job had given me, what I was grateful for. I had met many wonderful people, some of whom I am still in touch with today. I then posted my resume on an insurance broker job site and got offers from four different employers. After a lengthy interview, my current employers send me an offer without ever contacting my references.

I hope that if you can take away anything from this story, you will consider the following: weigh carefully your decision to disclose your mental illness to HR or management—you can never "undisclose" something. Just because an organization recognizes Mental Health Awareness Week does not necessarily mean it cares about your mental health.

But I also advocate getting mental health help in whatever form speaks to you. My experience has been that the professionals in the mental health field actually do care.

My new employer is highly ethical, respectful and trustworthy. I am thriving there and will be continuing my education with their support financially and otherwise. I have been given a new lease on my professional life. Gratitude has become my daily focus. Hope sustains me in moments of self-doubt and insecurity. If I survived this experience, then I can handle whatever happens!

* Pseudonym

 
About the author

Kyla grew up in a small town in northern BC. She experienced a rich childhood and was raised by caring parents, a WWII veteran father and homemaker mother. Kyla has called southwest BC home for more than 20 years. She loves animals, time spent in nature and West Coast swing

Footnotes:
  1. Williams, Mark, Teasdale, John, Segal, Zindel & Kabat-Zinn, Jon. (2007). The mindful way through depression: Freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness. New York: Guilford Press.

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