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Workplace Depression - Letting People Know Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Workopolis.com Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit www.CareerActivist.com.

Question:

Hi Mark, thank you for last week's column on workplace depression. I was starting to worry I was alone with this. Like the guy who wrote in last week, my doctor told me I have clinical depression. It explains so much. I swear I thought I was losing it. I feel so much better just knowing I have a treatable medical condition. I can't believe 25% of the workforce has it! But my work has gone way downhill from my lack of energy and concentration. Hopefully the meds and talk therapy start working soon. I have to tell someone here at work or they're going to probably fire me. How do I do this?

Marianne L., Burnaby, British Columbia
Dear Marianne,
I am so glad that you no longer feel like you're the only one with a stress-related health issue at work. As I mentioned in last week's column (The Workplace Depression Epidemic), November's survey by leading research firm Ipsos Canada revealed that more than 4.25 million ‚  employees and managers in Canada, you heard right, report being under the care of a physician for - or are otherwise living with - clinical depression, a treatable medical condition.

Like many of them, and like myself when I first developed depression in the early '90s, you're now faced with the prospect of ''outing'' yourself at work. This can be very anxiety provoking, especially if you suspect that your employer will not be supportive, or that ''admitting'' your illness will lead to being treated differently in negative ways.

I wish I could tell you there's an easy way to approach this. There are at least four key factors that you'll need to consider: the severity of your current condition, how long it might continue to impact your ability to function as well as you did beforehand, the policies your employer has in place for this sort of thing, and - I hate to put it so bluntly, but - how replaceable your employer thinks you are.
Clearly you are on the most solid ground if your illness is low level (as it often is with the type of depression known as Dysthymia) and your workplace has policies that protect you. Or if not, but your employer thinks' you're indispensable, you might be o.k. as well. In these circumstances, it can be as simple as taking your boss aside and telling the truth about your situation.

But if none of the above applies, it can get complicated. Sadly the possibility of a triple whammy exists. First, you are diagnosed with a medical condition that few people who haven't had it can't for the life of them understand how you might be suffering. (You might get comments like ''what, you're depressed? I get sad sometimes too you know, but I don't let it affect my work''.) Then, just as you're at a low ebb from the illness, you have to make an important decision about revealing it ‚  to others. Finally, there could be lingering suspicions about you even if the condition is managed, and even if you should be fortunate enough to start feeling as well as ever.

If this applies to you, and you're worried you'll be treated unfairly (e.g. demoted, fired, etc.), then here are some options:
  • Check your employee manual (if you've got one) to see if there are guidelines you can follow here.
  • Try to find out if anyone else in your workplace has had a similar experience. There might be a precedent that helps guide the employer on how to accommodate you.
  • If there's a Human Resources department at work, and you know someone there who you can trust to maintain confidentiality, seek them out and ask for their advice.
  • Consult with your personal physician to make sure they'll support your diagnosis in writing if necessary. And if they can honestly say that you have good prospects of getting better quickly, ask for this in writing as well.
  • Make an effort to document your performance levels before and after your diagnosis, should this be needed as support.
  • If you are part of a union or collective bargaining team, read over your rights and obligations in this matter. Seek out a union rep who might be able to advocate on your behalf.

Beyond this, there are two more immediate routes you can pursue. Neither one is particularly pleasant. The first is to approach your boss (or other management if necessary), and explain your situation as best you can. The objective is to try and reach some sort of agreed upon accommodation. Like maybe some time off, reduced hours or lighter workload until you can determine how things are going to shape up for you. Sometimes the higher ups can be quite understanding (heck, managers get clinically depressed too. Also it's a pain for them to replace you if they don't really have to). The other avenue to consider is talking to an employment lawyer. You might do so before telling management about your condition - if you think that your revelation could result in immediate repercussions. Otherwise, you could wait until you hear what the bosses have to say first.

Regardless of how you approach this, it is generally necessary to inform your employer of what's happening with you once it's fairly obvious that your work performance is suffering noticeably, and especially if this state of affairs is likely to last for more than a week or two. The danger of keeping quiet is that people may start guessing that you're going through something even more serious. Or that management will get impatient and begin dismissal procedures against you since they have no other explanation for your behaviour. Any way you slice it, this is a serious matter. Fortunately, I truly believe that as workplace mental health hits the headlines more and more (as it will continue to, believe you me), it becomes easier over time to talk about it out loud.

Note: For all you readers, thankfully these days help is but a click, or phone call, away. On the net, you can start with an excellent list of links to articles and resources on depression, from our federal government's National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) site. You can call your employer's free Employee Assistance Hotline, if available. Otherwise call your doctor and get in to see them as soon as you can. And if you're feeling suicidal, call a free ''crisis hotline'' immediately (check out this excellent list of Canadian crisis lines) or get to your nearest hospital emergency room, or a walk-in clinic, to speak to a medical professional.

For Managers and Executives especially, please visit the wonderfully informative site started by Bill Wilkerson, Mental Health Roundtable. You will learn what you can do to assist your staff while boosting your bottom line.

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