14 votes

How open should I be with potential employers about my mental illness struggles?

For the past 3 years I haven't worked in any full-time job because I've been trying to sort my mental illness problems and I started a new Master's degree. Now that I am working on my thesis and my savings are running out, I want and need to find a job.

The problem is that my mental health still isn't where I wanted it to be. I don't think I can work 8h per day. For example right now I'm trying new medication and after around 3 hours of focused work I get tired and sleepy.

I've been applying to many jobs and I feel I'm close to getting one as I'm having multiple interviews per week. So far I've explained the gap in my resume as being severely I'll and needing time to get treatment. But I never tell interviewers exactly what my issues are or that I'm still figuring out how to be at the level of a normal person.

I've been hearing a podcast about a guy who faces the same issues as me and his strategy was to be upfront with his employer and tell them when he is entering a dark period and needs to work less. He works in the effective altruism industry which I think is very different from the rest. I think that if I am as upfront as he is I wouldn't get a single interview.

Tell me what you think. Thanks.

8 comments

  1. [5]
    GormanFletcher
    Link
    I've been open with several employers about my mental health issues, including several jobs where I arranged to work 1/2 - 3/4 time or hourly because I couldn't handle steady 8-hour days. I...

    I've been open with several employers about my mental health issues, including several jobs where I arranged to work 1/2 - 3/4 time or hourly because I couldn't handle steady 8-hour days. I recommend being open - mental health struggles are already a big deal without the additional burden of having to ignore your needs so you can pass for "normal".

    My bosses generally wanted to help however they could, though they didn't always know how, so I had to be explicit about what you need from them. Working part-time was exactly what I needed at the time, so that's what my advice is oriented around, but my employers were willing to help in other ways if they could. Savvy employers are also deliberate about how they handle you because depression is a protected class under the ADA.

    I work in tech, and these were tech jobs with mid-level or senior titles. Tech never advertises part-time work, but you can find it with networking (meetups, former colleagues). Some teams are always looking to snatch up talent, and will create an opening for a compelling individual.

    The biggest challenges I faced:

    • Working part-time, you might get assigned all the less appealing tasks, since the "good" ones go to people who can work all day and attend all the meetings. That's a less demanding role, which is good if you're limited by your mental health, but it's less fun, more expendable, and doesn't puff up your resume. Sometimes your boss won't know what to do with you -- what tasks are low-urgency, low-collaboration, but worth paying someone to do -- so be prepared to offer up suggestions.

    • No one will hold your boundaries for you. If you can't sustain more than X daily hours, never make exceptions; if you don't look like you take your limits seriously, nobody around you will take them seriously either. And then people will get upset when you finally try to hold your boundaries. Be especially wary of this happening if you're assigned the "good" tasks, since people are less accommodating when they're counting on you for something important.

    • Be careful of the fine line between filling your employer in on your needs, and becoming too intimate with colleagues about what you're going through. I have trouble saying 'no' to people I've bonded with, and mental health in the workplace is all about saying 'no' firmly and frequently. You also want to be able to ask for accommodations and get them without having an armchair psychology session first, where your needs may be invalidated by someone who cares but doesn't understand.

    • If you work part-time, you probably don't get benefits, so you're double-dinged on the pay cut.

    Lastly, in case it helps somebody reading: if you've struggled with untreatable depression and anyone's ever jokingly wondered if you had autism/Asperger's, get tested, then see if "autistic burnout" is a match for your experiences. It took me far too many years to come across that.

    10 votes
    1. [2]
      umbrae
      Link Parent
      I think there’s a significant difference between filling in an existing employer and a potential employer. Did you tell your employers about it during the interview? That is much riskier in my...

      I think there’s a significant difference between filling in an existing employer and a potential employer. Did you tell your employers about it during the interview?

      That is much riskier in my view, as they are then less likely to make a hire as it could be perceived as a risk in terms of effective employment. And an existing employer is much more wary about lawsuits, honestly, so would be more apt to provide accommodation.

      7 votes
      1. GormanFletcher
        Link Parent
        I did out my problem to one employer I was already with, but thereafter I brought it up with new employers during the interview process, coming on board part-time from the start explicitly for my...

        I did out my problem to one employer I was already with, but thereafter I brought it up with new employers during the interview process, coming on board part-time from the start explicitly for my mental health. One employer in particular was glad for my desire to work part-time: they had a variety of maintenance tasks they needed a skilled hand for, but couldn't justify pulling their full-time people off of their higher priority projects.

        This is where having professional connections can help. I got one of these jobs because I'd previously given a presentation about a technology I'd been working with at the local Meetup. When I later interviewed with someone who frequented the meetup, the interview was just a formality: they'd already seen I was competent from the presentation, and we were just establishing whether the opportunity was a mutual fit. I got another job because someone I'd worked with got a new role and wanted me to join him. He'd liked me enough at our previous position that he was glad to have me, even part-time.

        3 votes
    2. [2]
      spit-evil-olive-tips
      Link Parent
      fuck. do you have any other resources or suggestions on dealing with this?

      see if "autistic burnout" is a match for your experiences

      fuck.

      do you have any other resources or suggestions on dealing with this?

      1. GormanFletcher
        Link Parent
        I'm still new to this topic, but the gist I've found so far boils down to identifying what's happening in your life that involves constant background stressors, or what takes constant effort to...

        I'm still new to this topic, but the gist I've found so far boils down to identifying what's happening in your life that involves constant background stressors, or what takes constant effort to handle, and then getting away from that stuff for a long while.

        For me, the triggers are stress because my autism makes my people skills too weak to feel confident about my social status in a context where that affects my financial security, and the effort of staying focused and engaged with the never-ending stream of tasks I'm not naturally interested in or have grown bored of. Other autistic people report it's sitting under the fluorescent lights all day, or suppressing their desire to stim, or the constant office chatter.

        My understanding is that autistic people can't endure these things over a long period as well as a non-autistic person can, and eventually the brain just gets exhausted and gives up. E.g., lots of people get bored of what they're working on ("that's why it's called work!"), but trying to just accept it as a fact of life like other people do ground me down until I was in a very dark place. But arriving there was a very gradual process. I held out just fine for a while. As I slowly became more and more psychologically fatigued, it was hard to tell why common life/work situations were becoming such an effort. And not yet having my autism diagnosis to guide me, I didn't understand why I struggled so much with things everyone else just sucked it up and dealt with.

        2 votes
  2. Adys
    Link
    I think your assumptions are correct. I'm assuming you're in the US. In Europe it's a bit better, varies country to country. What industry are you applying in?

    I think your assumptions are correct. I'm assuming you're in the US. In Europe it's a bit better, varies country to country.

    What industry are you applying in?

    5 votes
  3. umbrae
    Link
    This is a good question OP. I hope you get to a good place with your health. I think up front, I would say you’re under absolutely no obligation to tell any potential employer about your health...

    This is a good question OP. I hope you get to a good place with your health.

    I think up front, I would say you’re under absolutely no obligation to tell any potential employer about your health problems, mental or otherwise. Don’t feel guilty for not saying anything, if you feel that.

    If you think it will meaningfully impact your ability to do the job as laid out, you could consider mentioning that you would need an accommodation. Something like a one hour break in the day, due to your medication, or something. Being explicit about how it would impact you could help them understand that you’re in control of whatever problems you have and that you still intend to be an effective employee.

    Have you been receiving state or federal help for your issues? They may be eligible for a tax credit if yes which large employers might be stoked about especially if they think it won’t actually impact your effectiveness. https://www.irs.gov/businesses/small-businesses-self-employed/work-opportunity-tax-credit#targeted

    I think you’re generally right though that it will be seen as a negative. If I were you I would only bring it up in the late stages of an interview if at all, and very honestly, maybe only once employed. There isn’t a lot of incentive out there for employers to be fair - that’s why there’s so much regulation out there. We should eke as much out of capitalism as we can as individuals IMO.

    5 votes
  4. Pistos
    Link
    This may be too simplistic a view but, if it were me, I'd approach it like this: I wouldn't mention it at all at first, because, as others have said, you have no obligation to, and, indeed, in...

    This may be too simplistic a view but, if it were me, I'd approach it like this: I wouldn't mention it at all at first, because, as others have said, you have no obligation to, and, indeed, in some regions of the world it's plain prohibited for prospective employers to ask certain kinds of health-related questions. I would just try my best to perform the job at a normal level of effectiveness. Especially considering the current environment of most jobs being done remotely, it could be that nobody will notice anything, especially if you perform to expectations. Then, it's a moot point; you don't need to tell anyone at your workplace.

    Even if, once you're working, you yourself think that your performance is under par, it may be wisest to still not say anything, and let your employer be the one to bring it up ("we notice that you're underperforming relative to your teammates"). They still may not ever notice anything (i.e. you could be judging your own self too critically), but if they do, you can have some pre-prepared answers and explanations, divulging some calculated amount of private information re: your health condition. They can decide what to do at that point, but it would serve you well to do some research about your country's and local region's laws regarding what is permissible to do as far as termination goes when there are health concerns involved.

    From the sounds of things, you are in need of income, so I don't think you should (or can afford to) be too nice or accommodating about it, at least in the early going. I'm not saying to be outright dishonest, but you owe it to yourself (and any dependants) to give yourself good chances to make a living.

    5 votes