Thursday, April 26, 2007

Disclosing Your Illness or Not?

In the Bipolar Disorder Daily News Blog from September 16, 2006, the writer quotes David J. Miklowitz, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of The Bipolar Survival Guide: What You and Your Family Need to Know. When asked whether bipolar workers should disclose their illness or not, Mikowitz talks about the stigma and says bipolar workers usually adopt one of four strategies.

-"Tell everyone about the condition, including the boss and co-workers.

-Tell one or more trusted co-workers who don't hold positions of authority.

-Don't tell anyone, but admit to having a bipolar disorder on any work-sponsored health insurance claims, opening the possibility that the employer may find out.

-Don't tell anyone at work, and don't use your employer-provided health insurance to cover treatment costs."

I'd be interested in knowing other people's point of view. Since my illness wasn't diagnosed until so late in my career, my experience may be quite different, and so might my opinion. Having said that, personally I think it's a bad idea to disclose this illness. In my case, I only told two employers, and each time it was a disaster.

The first and worst case was about five years ago when I decided to pursue a part-time fundraising position for a non-profit organization. My reason for the disclosure was that they wanted a full-time employee and I was only interested in a part-time job. Although I had been freelancing for years, I'd decided to see whether a part-time staff position would be less stressful.

The problem with being a freelance grant writer is that there are high expectations from the "get-go." You're seen as an outsider who's being brought on board to work miracles. As a staff member, organizations expect a learning curve, you are "one of them" rather than an outsider, and it's more of a team effort.

It was challenging to try and convince my future boss to hire me part-time when she truly wanted a full-time person. During our initial conversation, it became quite clear that I needed to provide a "real reason" why I could only work part-time.

So, I took a deep breathe and said, "I'm bipolar. I can only work part-time."

Because a job interview is like selling a product--with the job seeker being the product--the rest of the conversation focused on how much money I'd raised through my grant writing efforts, the breadth of my experience, an analysis of their current program, and how I felt I might contribute. I've been told by any number of clients that they've never met anyone who prepares for these meetings as diligently as I do.

Because of how many successful grants I'd written and my level of experience (which was far greater than hers), Ms. Puddse (an acronym; see next paragraph) agreed to hire me on a part-time basis.

In our initial interview, I only wish Ms. Puddse had been as open about her condition as I was about mine. After a few weeks, it became clear that she suffered from undiagnosed paranoia (she truly thought her office was bugged), severe unpleasantness that revealed itself when she felt her employees knew more than she did, duplicity, dishonesty, and a lack of self-esteem that was masked by aggression.

Needless to say, the situation didn't work out, and I leaned that this was a fairly common occurrence. A co-worker told me that Ms. Puddse was universally disliked (although she was highly competent in some ways) and her staff frequently quit or moved to other departments within the organization.

Once Ms. Puddse "turned on me," I would have preferred to have remained and to have reported to someone else. But because of my disclosure, I realized I had given Ms. Puddse a weapon to use against me. And I also believe that no matter how competent I was, the very mention of "mental illness" makes high level management wonder "who's really the problem employee," even when a supervisor has a history of bad behavior. Ultimately, I quit before I got sick.

That's my opinion in a nutshell. Whether or not employees should refrain from using an employer's insurance policy (in order to keep their illness a secret) is actually another issue altogether, and one we'll address some other time. If you'd like to share your experience--and I'm hoping you will--or give advice, I'll include your comments in Saturday's post. Starting on Monday, I'm moving on to other topics.


jinnah said...

Here's a good one. I'm in a management position where I do have to make decisions regarding hiring / firing people.

I cheat - I am in my family's business and can't be (easily) fired - my boss is my brother.

However I do know over the years my contribution to the business has been substantial - I am not enjoying a free ride.

I have slowly let out the fact that I am bipolar over a long period - more than five years - enough so that the employees that I deal with can see that the quality of my work is not affected by my being bipolar. I do have their respect.

Now, here's the kicker. Our business is the provision of security officers. If someone mentioned they were bipolar when being hired, I would not hire them - too many potential liabilities. If however they were already working solidly for a while before the information is disclosed, we would just keep an eye on them.

Interestingly enough, if the person said they wanted to work part time (as in missing a lot of days) for health reasons, without telling us they were bipolar, we might be able to accommodate them.

BamaGal said...

I work in the mental health field---so you would think they would be more understanding---not so---I actually had a fellow employee make the comment ---why did they(the company) give the keys to the crazy house to a crazy person---I happen to work in a group home with Forensic consumers--

but in my work with in APSE---I've given seminars on working and having a severe mental illness---if you fail to disclose when taking a job--you can not ask for an accomondation at a later date---example if you need to change your hours or go part time---but it boils down to being a personal decision---I'm one of those who is very open about my diagnosis---I use the opportunity to educate the masses---but it does not define who I am it is just a part of me---

Syd said...

Excellent post. As usual, you raise some very interesting issues, and they're timely too. Today I was offered, and enthusiastically accepted a new job. I start next week (YEAH!). It's a small company, I met with and will report directly to the President, but it never even occurred to me to mention BP in the interview. I guess I inadvertently assumed the "don't ask-don't tell" posture. Ideally, it won't have to come up given the nature of the job, but if it does, hopefully it'll be after I've worked there long enough to have proven myself capable.

As for the insurance question, you've got me wondering. I didn't realize that health insurance companies can/do disclose the nature of an employee's medical condition(s) to the employer. Am I being incredibly niave about this? This employer covers 100% of the health care premiums, it's probably one of the best health insurance providers around, and I can't imagine NOT utilizing this great benefit. Can you post more about how that works?

Polly said...

I think it's usually better not to disclose, because people usually will discriminate against you if you do. I've never told anyone I've ever worked with that I was bipolar.

I just started a new part time job today, though, and there was a sheet we had to fill out about emergency contact information and stuff. One question was "Do you have any medical conditions we should know about?" and I left that blank, but the next question asked about medications, and I was feeling reckless so I actually answered, "sertraline hydrochloride and divalproex sodium." I don't plan to be there very long and I have another part time job I like better, so if they decide to fire me for being crazy, I don't really care.

Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

That's great news. I don't really know the answer to your question. If the health insurance is great coverage, it sounds like you should go with it. If anyone else who reads this knows the answer to Syd's question, please respond ASAP. If they don't know, I'll contact a friend who's in human resources and see if she knows.


Bipolar Wellness Writer said...

That's great news for you too. Today was evidently a great day for you and Syd. Congrats!