Family and Caregiver Schizophrenia Discussion Forum

Explaining "Chronic Illness" to a Boss

Hey all,

Does anyone have any advice for how to communicate with a boss/supervisor about dealing with mental illness?

I know that part of this problem reveals how lucky I am. My husband’s symptoms are about 60% 'controllable with medication and healthy lifestyle choices. Like other people with SZA, the periods of his life where he was symptomatic are usually marked with unemployment, debt, and the dangers those things bring, and it really helps him stay in a healthy place if he has a meaningful job and the routine that a work schedule brings.

Currently, both of us work in the school system, and while he is not a teacher, he works with Special Ed kids. His boss and some of his coworkers are aware that he has a “chronic illness” of some magnitude, but do not know that it is a mental illness, much less schizophrenia. On most days, he can perform his job without showing symptoms.

His coworkers just think he is a quirky guy, and that any stress he has is work-related. My husband is phenomenal at his job, and has attracted the attention of the principal of his school, who has made it clear that he’d love to have my husband working in a higher position than the one he is in now. It’s wonderful to get that kind of feedback, but both my husband and I agree that a higher position might not be the best for him in terms of balancing his own health needs, and he’s completely baffled as to how to have that conversation with his boss.

In addition, he’s entered a period where he is becoming more symptomatic again. We’re in a stable place, he’s seeing his psychiatrist today, a therapist next week, and is very aware that his SZA is “acting up” and causing him to suffer. The problem, however, is that when he is especially symptomatic, he makes a point of calling out of work. I support his choice, because his job is difficult, and trying to perform his duties while symptomatic would be very dangerous for himself and other people. But he’s out of sick days at work, and people are beginning to notice. People who do not know that he has a chronic illness just think he is flaky, while people who know he has an illness are beginning to ask more questions about what, specifically is wrong.

I don’t feel pressured to talk about our business with anyone-- except his boss. My husband is terrified to talk in more specific terms with his supervisor about his SZA because he was kicked out of his graduate school for having a mental illness. (It doesn’t matter that it’s illegal, it’s what happened, and we have no money, time, or energy to fight it.)

He’s missing too many days from work for it to not be a problem. He misses about 1 day of work every week. He’s GOT to have a conversation of some kind. I don’t want him to lose his job, and I’m afraid that it might happen. Does anyone have any advice for this situation? Does he have to reveal that he has schizophrenia to his boss? Could he be fired? Is this an “apply for disability” kind of situation? What do I do?

Assuming you are living and working in the United States…

It is illegal to fire someone over missing work due to illness, disability and genetic disorders as long as the individual can provide his employer with a doctor’s note for each absence.
(Except for very specific circumstances, like a change in work requirements. But even then, an option for alternative work, or a new position is usually provided)

You husband’s doctor can provide his employers a note which states he is under clinical care and all absences are related to his illness, which is chronic and life-long. This isn’t a “get out of jail free card”, because your husband would still need to be prepared to provide proof that each absence was made with his doctor’s recommendation, or was followed up on by his doctor.

It is a good thing that neither you, nor your husband or his doctor specify what his diagnosis actually is.
Not only is it illegal for his employer to ask, there is so much stigma toward certain conditions that it very well could impact his work life negatively.

It is enough to do the following:

  1. Try to give the employer notice when he will miss work, as soon as he knows he won’t come in that day.
  2. If he doesn’t know when he will return to work, do not make any promises about returning by a certain date.
  3. Visit the doctor, or call and get a note that states missing work is part of managing his condition, or part of his treatment.
  4. He should call to inform the employer when he will be able to return to work, ideally before showing up and also ideally during business hours.

Any reprimand, harassment, interrogation, or punishment is both illegal and immoral when they are a result of missing work, or limitations due to your husband’s disorder.
As long as he does not break the law, or violate his employer’s policy on conduct on the job, he is immune to backlash from his employer for the most part (again, barring any very specific circumstances regarding offering alternative job duties, or a separate position at the company, or offering a termination package. Even then, those circumstances must be handled so carefully by the employer, most would not go to the effort).

So, it might be a good idea to consult with a lawyer who is familiar with workers who have disability and who are worried about backlash from their employer.
Knowing the laws and what your husband is required by law (and equally important, not required by law) to do is important in this situation.

Today’s workplace is no better now than decades ago…regardless of what some “A List” CEO’s like to spout and put out for public consumption. It is not safe to disclose to anyone in the workplace unless some disclosure is required by law.

Even now one of the worst industries/occupations that have found a way around HIPAA in getting people to disclose a mental illness or any mental health treatment in one’s past is the licensing organizations for nursing. It is accomplished by the required questions asked of applicants. From what I’ve read people are being discriminated against.

1 Like

I would NOT disclose anything specific about the mental illness, myself, as although discrimination in the workplace is illegal, it IS still done in covert ways, successfully, by employers. I think that it is best to simply say something general, in order to have a conversation about “additional sick days are likely to be needed” and that the current job position is probably best for now.

At my job, people have been let go for the darndest reasons, and in my state, you can let someone go and not tell them why (which happened to another co-worker).

Once you disclose the mental illness, it never can be taken back out of the minds of the persons it was disclosed to, and gossip is SUCH a normal (but horrible to fight) thing. I am disrespected at work and have been passed over for raises/promotions unfairly because I disclosed my daughter’s sz and my husband’s alcoholism. I did it to get time off when needed, but it has worked against me. It would have been better if I’d said I had emergencies for other reasons, and not been so specific about the illnesses involved. The folks who get off because their dogs are sick get more respect from my employers.

1 Like

All I told my boss when my daughter was hospitalized is that my daughter was in the hospital for mental health issues and that I might have to take some to take care of her… and longer lunch times to visit her… he asks how she is doing from time to time.

2 Likes

I personally will never, ever tell anyone who doesn’t need specifics (at work, at school, in church, etc.) about a hospitalization or treatment for mental health issues in myself, a friend, or a loved one again. I can’t take back what I have said in the past, but going forward, I say very little now.

I have to go to court next Thursday, and I simply said I need a day off for court. I’m sure it is being gossiped about what the court date is for, but no one has asked me, and I’m sure no one will.

A friend told me once that it is best to keep your own details to yourself as “if you tell another what you know, then they have double the data - what they know and what you know. And it can be used against you.”

2 Likes

Dear oldladyblue,

I am sad to hear you’ve had this experience. Yesterday I had to tell my supervisor and co-workers that there was a good chance my husband would be calling for me (harassing) at work. When he gets in crisis, he calls and calls and calls and calls. He does this mostly on my home phone, but he did also once a few years ago where we used to live and I was afraid that because he is extremely delusional and angry that he would do it again. This is a substitute position that I hope to have eventually as a permanent position. I felt I had no choice but to warn them so his calls wouldn’t clog up the system. Thankfully they were kind about it and it turned out my husband didn’t call after all.

I don’t want to discuss whether or not employers are doing the right thing legally or not because it seems very random, that one employer might follow the laws and respect a disclosure while another might fire the employee illegally. There is no way to tell if this will happen or not until it does. I have always told my bosses, managers and the closest co-workers I worked with and have had nothing but kindness and understanding. It is quite unfortunate you had been treated so poorly after confiding in people at your workplace.

As for gossip, of course there will always be petty people who will gossip (and these types of people will find something to gossip about you anyway!), but what I am hoping is that for others to know not only what I am going through but also what my husband is going through that they will become educated and this will help reduce stigma in the future. Basically my story is another side, one that has worked out in a positive way.

Thanks for your replies, everyone. We went to his psych appointment yesterday, and she’s really supportive, but also was upfront about ow some workplaces still discriminate. His workplace is having a meeting with him today, with someone from HR present, and we’ve planned to prepare his application for his ‘chronic illness’ to be counted as a disability. (Ideally, this would have happened sooner, but he did not have an in-state psychiatrist until 6 months ago.)
His psychiatrist advised us that she would be as discreet as she could on any paperwork that she had to fill out on his behalf, but that she would probably have to disclose his exact diagnosis to HR personnel. We have to hope, I think, that the school system is professional enough not to disclose his file to just anyone at his school.
I know his supervisors are concerned about him, and my hope is that the quality of work that he is doing with his kids will persuade anyone who knows his diagnosis to overlook the stigma. He does a very difficult job very, very well, and I am confident that part of what makes him SO good at his job is how empathetic he is with the kids who are struggling with thought disorders and mood disorders like he is. I’ll update this thread with how his meeting goes.
Thank you all again! (Especially @wreklus – your list made me feel a lot more confident going in to talk with the psych. about what we needed to do)

2 Likes

Yes, @LifeIsHard , it is a sort of a job for all of us to try and reduce the stigma of mental illness. I still work on this, but basically by talking in general about “those I know who have been hit with SMI in their families”. I, too, wish my workplace had been kinder to me, however, I feel ostracized at work, with only one true friend there who talks to me on a daily basis. It taught me a lesson I never expected to have to learn.

1 Like

oldladyblue,

Yes, I have also learned lessons I never expected to have to learn and have cried more than I have ever cried before. It never seems to end.

That is a good idea to speak publicly about illness as second-hand knowledge, educating them without making it too personal. Thank you.

I’d be interested to know what state you’re in and whether your husband has a union at work?

@boobear We currently live in Georgia-- admittedly not the best state for mental health support, but it’s where we need to be right now for family reasons. We previously had lived in Virginia and New York, and they both had their pros & cons as well. New York seemed like we would have had a good chance, but it actually turned out that, in order to get public assistance for his illness, he basically needed to make “being sick” his full-time job. I could gripe for pages, but it’s not purposeful right now.

As for a union, I’m looking in to it. Georgia is a “Right to Work” state, so there’s always that frustration. I am a teacher, and I know there are organizations in place to support me, but my husband is not a teacher so I have to figure out what’s available for him.

Also, thank you everyone again, for your really helpful comments!

Update for how Friday went: My husband met with an administrator in the afternoon, and the meeting went really well. He has to have his pay docked for the days he’s exceeded his sick leave, but his supervisor was really supportive of him applying for disability waiver with HR, and pointedly told him she does not need or want to know more details about his illness to ensure that she does not even accidentally discriminate. She also assured him that he’s doing a great job where he is, and he does not need to accept any advancement offers unless he feels like he is ready. That was a huge relief to my husband, and I could already see a difference in how he is feeling.

Now, we have the contact information for HR to organize his disability stuff. This is a first for us, so we’re nervous, but I feel a lot better today than I did last week. W’re feeling more confident now that we have a better idea of how his particular supervisor prefers to handle things.

3 Likes

I am glad things went well with the meeting with HR… hopefully the process for the disability waiver application will work out well too.