Navigating disclosure: talking about your mental health during onboarding

May 22, 2023

7 mins

Navigating disclosure: talking about your mental health during onboarding
Kaila Caldwell

Freelance writer and translator

Embarking on a new job is like going on a blind date. Sure, it’s exciting, but it can also make you feel like a bundle of nerves. And for those who struggle with mental health issues, it can be even more daunting. Sometimes just the thought of disclosing your personal information to strangers can trigger a whole new level of anxiety and stress. This is due to the stigma associated with mental illness. The fear of prejudice and discrimination can hinder workers from seeking assistance, creating a roadblock to success in the workplace.

Discussing your mental health during the onboarding process can help you get the support you need and ensure that you are set up for success. Determining who to talk to, what information to disclose, and how to request any necessary accommodations to thrive in your new job is essential. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s dive in and figure out how to make this new job work for you.

Is disclosing your mental health right for you?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are legally required to provide equal employment opportunities for workers with physical or mental disabilities. Discrimination based on these conditions is strictly prohibited, and employers must make reasonable accommodations to support disabled workers in performing their essential job functions.

However, deciding whether or not to disclose personal information and mental health conditions can create a lot of uncertainty, and it’s crucial to consider the right course of action. Fortunately, discussing mental health is becoming less taboo. “Post-Covid, we are now having these open conversations about mental health and the effects of mental health on the employee population,” explains Tina Purnell, an Employee Relations Manager with over ten years of employment and labor relations expertise. Numbers back up her claim: according to Lyra Health’s 2022 State of Workforce Mental Health, the number of employees who discussed their mental health in the workplace has nearly doubled, from 23% in 2020 to 43% in 2021.

If you’re wondering when to disclose your medical conditions and request an accommodation, New York-based Employee Relations Manager Melissa Carhuayo recommends doing so as soon as you start. She emphasizes that transparent communication from the outset is crucial to prevent any misunderstandings. “You might need appropriate accommodation to perform the essential functions of your role,” she explains. Carhuayo cautions that if you don’t disclose your mental health situation early on, you may encounter performance or attendance issues that aren’t properly understood by your employer, putting you in a position to struggle. Lack of disclosure can lead to conflict with your manager and colleagues.

Carhuayo and Purnell agree that transparency from the beginning is vital. “It’s not that you can’t perform the essential functions of your job, it’s [that] you just might need a little something extra or a little change to be successful, and that’s okay,” says Carhuayo. As for who you should approach during the onboarding process about your accommodation needs, HR expert Purnell advises finding the guidance and available resources that will help you perform your job to the best of your ability.

Where should you turn to first for guidance?

While starting the process of disclosing your mental health condition to your new employer can be overwhelming, our experts have a well-defined plan of action to make it easier for you.

Read the onboarding resource material

Typically, when you start a new job, you are given a very, very large packet of information and company resources. Carhuayo knows that most people don’t read through the entire resource and benefits package, as starting a new job comes with many other important tasks, but she says this is a great place to start. “It will include a list of information, such as your benefits enrollment, questions about insurance, and just a general overview of the function of HR and the resources that they provide,” explains Purnell. Even if you don’t find all the information you’re looking for, it will give you a better overview of the company’s policies and benefits they offer. “It will not only have their benefits explained but also contact information,” says Carhuayo.

But even with a list of contact information, how do you know who to contact first?

Who should you contact first?

When starting a new job, an onboarding specialist or HR representative is typically assigned to oversee your onboarding process or review your benefits package. As both experts explain, they should be your initial point of contact. Even if you have already read through the resource material, they can confirm who you should reach out to first.

To initiate a conversation about working accommodations, Purnell provides some practical suggestions: “You could start by asking if there is a designated person or team in charge of managing leaves or accommodations. Inform them that you need assistance navigating the accommodation process.” She further explains that the appropriate person may be in the benefits department and advises paying attention to teams with comparable titles, such as Benefits Team, Leaves Team, Leaves and Absence, or Leaves and Accommodations, as they are likely to handle these types of inquiries. Make sure to consult with your onboarding specialist for additional guidance. In the case of a smaller company with a less extensive HR department, Carhuayo suggests asking the team member assisting with your onboarding for assistance in finding the right person to contact regarding working accommodations.

The conversation with HR about accommodations

To help start the conversation with an HR representative about accommodations, Purnell provides a script: “I’m thrilled to be part of this team and eager to begin working. However, I have [insert condition], which can sometimes affect my ability to perform my duties. Can you please advise me on the resources available to me so that my medical condition does not hinder my work performance?”

Examples of accommodations

If you’re unsure about what kind of accommodations would be best for you, our experts have some suggestions based on their years of experience in employee relations. Carhuayo suggests that you may need a flexible work schedule, a private workspace in the office, or a designated no-noise zone with specific headphones. Purnell has seen employees request a flexible work-from-home schedule or adjusted start and end times, as well as incremental breaks throughout the day or specific times during the week to attend medical appointments.

Consider discussing with your physician the best accommodations for your needs, and request a note from them to be provided directly to HR, advises Carhuayo. “A medical note can tell HR right off the bat what benefits the employee needs. It speeds up the process,” she explains. Doing so can help ensure that you receive the necessary support promptly in your new role.

Disclosing your mental health to your direct manager

While it may seem natural to approach your manager when in need of resources, going straight to them with personal medical information may not always be the best approach, according to Carhuayo. She explains, “They’re going to someone who doesn’t need to know their medical information, but I see why they would think to start there as they usually go to their managers for almost every other resource question.” However, this approach could lead to the unnecessary spread of personal information.

Purnell suggests that some managers may not be well-equipped with the knowledge needed to handle medical accommodations, unlike HR or Employee Relations teams. “Some managers might not even know that some sort of accommodation is protected under the ADA, so they aren’t equipped to handle HR-related requests,” she says. Furthermore, managers may not want to know their employees’ personal information, as Carhuayo has witnessed. “I’ve had managers come to me expressing that they feel for the employee, but they don’t want to know their employee’s personal business. Not because they don’t want to help, but because they’re uncomfortable.”

Talking to your manager about your mental health accommodations

Once an accommodation agreement has been reached with HR, your manager will be informed that you require an accommodation, but the reason behind the accommodation will not necessarily be disclosed. Carhuayo explains, “Your People partner will explain your accommodation request to your manager, and whether you disclose the details is up to you.” It’s important to note that even if you choose not to disclose your exact medical condition to your manager, they will still be aware that you have an accommodation. This means that this is the time to make the decision about whether or not to disclose your mental health condition to your manager.

It’s a trust situation

A 2021 report from Front Psychiatry found that 73% of respondents with mental health issues disclosed their condition to their managers, with 87.7% indicating that the disclosure had a positive outcome. According to the survey, 43.6% of those who disclosed did so because of a good relationship with their manager. Trust is an essential factor in making decisions about disclosing your mental health, and it often depends on the relationship you have with your manager. As Purnell advises, “If you feel comfortable and can trust your manager, it may be okay to disclose your specific medical condition.”

What if your manager doesn’t respond well?

Go to your employee relations manager—that’s what they’re there for! They manage the relationship between employers and employees by addressing employee concerns, resolving conflicts, and ensuring that the company is complying with all employment laws and regulations. But Prunell hopes it doesn’t come to that. “Managers should be empathetic and understand they shouldn’t be a stigma around mental health conditions.”

Some companies have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), explain Carhuayo and Purnell. EAP is a work-based intervention program designed to assist employees in resolving personal problems that may be adversely affecting the employee’s performance. It’s a good internal resource to fall back on if you need more assistance.

Be honest according to your comfort level

Prunell says that the most important thing for that new employees is to just be honest about what they’re dealing with. “If they don’t want to speak to your manager, that’s fine, but you need to let your manager know that they’re dealing with some medical concerns.” Furthermore, Carhuayo stresses that your personal information is safe. “We want to protect your privacy so it might just be one person who knows the details of your condition and that person is subject to privacy laws.”

It’s important to remember that mental health is just as important as physical health, and it’s okay to discuss it in the workplace. By understanding your rights, being prepared, and framing the conversation correctly, you can be sure that you get the support you need to succeed in your new role. Ask questions, don’t be afraid to speak up, and advocate for yourself. You want to do great work for your new job, and that’s what matters.

Check out more content related to Mental Health Awareness Month 2023 here.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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