Major depressive disorder (MDD) affects your everyday life. You can get effective treatment for the physical and emotional symptoms, but they may still get in the way of your work from time to time. In fact, depression is the No. 3 problem that employees say interferes with their work, after family crises and stress.
Just because MDD can get in the way of your work, you aren’t required to tell your employer that you have this condition. It’s up to you whether you share that information. Some people choose to keep their condition private because:
- They can perform their job duties most of the time.
- They believe they would be discriminated against because of their mental health status.
- They fear they’d be held to a different standard.
- They worry about negative reactions from others.
For the most part, it’s fine to keep your diagnosis to yourself. But your employer can ask you health questions, including about your mental health, in situations such as these:
- You’ve asked for accommodations. Your employer may ask for a letter from a medical professional documenting your mental health condition if you request a change to how, when, or where you do your job to help support your needs. However, you may be able to get a generalized statement from your doctor that doesn’t name a specific diagnosis.
- You’ve accepted a job but haven’t started. In this case, everyone starting the same job category has to be asked the same questions. The employer can’t single you out with specific health questions.
- Your employer needs the information for affirmative action purposes. If your employer tracks disability status for an applicant pool to look at how it hires and recruits, they may ask for information about your mental health. You can choose whether or not to respond.
- You struggle to do your job or pose a safety risk. If your physical and mental limitations mean you can’t complete required tasks, your employer can request more information about why.
You should know that if you keep your diagnosis private, there are resources and protections you can use to better approach your work life.
Asking for Accommodations
If your MDD gets in the way of your ability to do your work, you can talk to your employer about reasonable accommodations. Accommodations are changes in the way you normally do things at work, such as where, when, or how you do your job, or changes to the hiring process.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers who have 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodations. Your employer may ask for a letter from a medical professional that documents your mental health condition. You may be able to get a generalized statement that doesn’t name a specific diagnosis if you don’t want to disclose your MDD.
Your employer is required to keep this information confidential. It’s also illegal for an employer to discriminate against you because of your health. They can’t:
- Fire you
- Reject you for a job promotion
- Force you to leave
You can meet with your employer in person to talk about accommodations, but it’s also important to document your request in writing. In this accommodation request letter, make sure to:
- State that you’re a person with a disability requesting accommodations under the ADA (or the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 if you are a federal employee)
- List the specific tasks/areas that are challenges because of your condition
- Propose ideas for how to modify these areas/tasks
- Ask for your employer’s ideas for meeting your needs
- Include medical documentation, if your employer has asked for it
If your MDD keeps you from doing your work completely, you may be able to ask for unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation, if taking that leave can help you get back to a place where you can work again.
Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the FMLA ensures unpaid leave for “a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job.” Under the FMLA, your job is protected and will still be available to you when you return. Your employer is also required to continue your group health benefits under the same conditions you have while you’re working.
In order to be eligible for FMLA, you have to:
- Work for a covered employer, which includes government agencies, schools, and private sector employers that have at least 50 employees for 20 or more work weeks
- Have worked at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months prior to the start of leave
- Work at a location with at least 50 employees within 75 miles
- Have worked for your employer for at least 12 months
FMLA can cover consecutive days of time off and can also cover you when you leave work early for treatment or therapy for your MDD.
Your Employer’s Mental Health Services
Some workplaces offer access to information and referral services for employees with symptoms of depression. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are third-party organizations employers contract with to offer mental health programming and support for employees.
EAPs may provide:
- Employee education to teach employees how to use resources and stay on top of their mental and physical health
- Individual assessments to help evaluate employee well-being
- Organizational assessments to monitor how well the workplace is cultivating a healthy work environment
- Management consultation to help train managers in healthy workplace practices
- Referrals to treatment if an employee needs more resources
- Short-term counseling to help bridge the gap until you can find longer-term options
Some EAPs come to your place of work. Others you may access through a toll-free number and go through an intake process to find a provider near you.
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American Psychiatric Association: “What Is Depression?”
Mental Health America: “Depression in The Workplace,” “What mental health accommodations can I ask for at work?”
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: “Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights.”
U.S. Department of Labor: “Family and Medical Leave Act,” “Mental Health and the FMLA.”
CDC: “Workplace Health Promotion.”
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: “Provide Support.”