When Vincent van Gogh, Tennessee Williams and Brian Wilson suffered from depression, they were on their own. Each day they struggled not only to do their work, but to get out of bed and function.
For many of the 18.8 million American adults with depressive disorders, the world is a better place today. If they work in a company with 15 or more employees, they are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Just as with a physical disability, they are protected from discrimination in areas like hiring, pay and promotion. They are also eligible for “reasonable accommodation,” including time off for medical appointments, flextime or job sharing. With depression-related illnesses accounting for close to $12 billion in lost workdays each year, businesses now recognize the importance of treating workers with mental disorders -- and keeping them in the workforce.
Yet depression may be overlooked or minimized by sufferers and supervisors alike, because it cannot be diagnosed by a blood test or MRI. And how employers can help is often overlooked as well.
Is Your Depression a Disability?
“The tricky part is determining if someone’s depression is severe enough to meet the legal definition of ‘disability,’” warns Fawn Fitter, coauthor of Working in the Dark: Keeping Your Job While Dealing with Depression. To reach that threshold, one of three conditions must be present:
The third condition is important in the workplace due to the perception of managers and coworkers. “Depression still carries a stigma,” says Fitter. “If others consider you lazy, uncooperative or incompetent, you’re discriminated against. And that qualifies you as disabled.”
- Depression must substantially limit an employee’s ability to perform major life activities, like concentrating or sleeping.
- It must have substantially limited the employee in the past.
- Or others must perceive that person as substantially limited.
Unfortunately, the ADA protects only workers who disclose their disabilities to employers. The good news is that the exact condition need not be identified by name. “You can just say you have a disabling illness, or even a ‘biochemical imbalance,’” explains Fitter. Medical corroboration is also required.
Identify How Your Benefits Plan Might Help
ComPsych, one of the nation’s largest employee assistance companies, says that an employee who may be suffering from depression should first review his benefits packet to determine if support is available through an employee assistance program, or EAP.
ComPsych recommends EAP as a first step. “Many people with even severe depression are fully functioning,” says a spokeswoman for the company. “Though the stigma associated with depression has diminished somewhat over the years, employees still may not want to tell HR, managers and/or coworkers about a depressive disorder.”
Workers may also be entitled to mental health benefits through their general health insurance.
Communicate Your Needs
If an employee decides to ask for accommodation under the ADA but is afraid to disclose fully, a good way to tell a supervisor is like this: “Starting Monday, I’ll be hospitalized for a serious health problem. I don’t know how long I’ll be there. If it extends beyond my sick days, I may have to take a leave of absence. I’ll keep you informed.”
Of course, not all depression demands hospitalization. “Reasonable accommodation” can include requesting instructions in writing (depressed people may have trouble focusing or with memory), moving a desk to an area with less foot traffic or leaving work for medical appointments (with a promise to make up the time later).
For example, retail workers might ask for relaxation of rules prohibiting eating or drinking in view of customers. Because certain medications lead to cottonmouth, a sales clerk could request the right to drink water, while storing the bottle out of sight.
Employees do not need to describe their diagnoses; all they need to do is say, for example, “I have a medical condition that requires I drink water frequently.”
Fitter notes that most ADA accommodations are simple, low-cost or even free.
Whom to ask for accommodations depends on individual situations, Fitter says. It could be a manager, the human resources department, or an equal employment or EAP officer. Every company and corporate culture is different. If an employee does not know whom to contact, he can consult the company handbook, or ask a trusted colleague or manager.
And colleagues do not necessarily need to know of the condition. Some employees feel comfortable sharing personal details; others do not. If the condition is one that will lead to workplace changes, such as frequent bathroom breaks or absences, a worker could share the same way he would share with a supervisor: “I have a medical condition that may require me to…”
If You’re Not Getting Support for Your Depression
Sometimes a manager is the cause of depression. In that case, Fitter says, talk to your boss’s boss. If that’s not possible, “look for another job,” she advises. “I firmly believe no job is more important than your mental health.”
If you believe you have been discriminated against because of depression, you do have legal remedies. Complaints can be filed with a variety of organizations, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and Department of Labor.