47

If someone is experiencing feelings of severe depression (affecting their work ability and work output), should they disclose this to their supervisor?

  • What are the pros of disclosure?
  • What are the cons of disclosure?
  • What are the risks of disclosure?

migrated from programmers.stackexchange.com Jun 21 '13 at 1:04

This question came from our site for professionals, academics, and students working within the systems development life cycle.

  • 4
    It depends on your relationship with the lead. Also, this is probably better for workplace. – Telastyn Jun 21 '13 at 0:43
  • 7
    There's one thing I'd recommend - ask questions related to medical privacy and other potentially troublesome stuff as an anonymous user. – Deer Hunter Jun 21 '13 at 13:44
  • @JoeStrazzere I really just wanted my lead to know that I wasn't intentionally trying to sandbag on him (or the team), and that I do intend to pull my weight to support my team. I guess I felt that it would be dishonorable not to pull my full weight, putting the burden on my team, without trying to provide the full reason (and working through it). I figured that giving a reason for my lowered performance would be better than not, but I wasn't sure (and still am not). – anon Jun 21 '13 at 22:51
  • 4
    Depression is a serious mental illness which - if not treated properly - can cause you to be unable to work as a programmer for several years. As such it should be treated as seriously as a physical illness. It is then the question how much stigmatization happens in the culture of the asker. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jun 26 '13 at 13:06
  • 1
    Note: definition of 'to sandbag' urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=sandbag – Jan Doggen Oct 8 '13 at 7:57
47

First, go see your family doctor about your depression. No one at your work is capable of assisting you like your doctor can, and depression is treatable with often good results.

Peoples perspective in the workplace can often be misguided, uninformed or just ignorant about the problem of depression. They can often think the following.

  • You just need more sleep.
  • You're working too hard.
  • Suck it up.
  • You're sensitive.
  • Try to be positive.
  • It's just a phase. You'll get over it.

None of these things has anything to do with depression, nor do any of them help. Untreated depression can persist for months or even years.

After you seek medical help from your doctor. Request a written letter from the doctor for your employer. Most doctors charge a small fee for this, but it could be very helpful. The letter does not have to disclose any personal information or even say the word depression. It can simply say that you are seeking medical care for a personal matter, and that the personal matter may affect your job performance.

This informs your employer that there is an undisclosed issue, but you're seeking treatment for it. It should protect you from unexpected negative reviews about your performance during this period.

I wish you the best of luck. Know that depression is a normal part of life, it doesn't make you any different and it's your body's way of responding to the conditions around you. It's a natural thing, but we live in a busy industrial society which isn't very natural.

  • 3
    You might want to see a psychiatrist. A family doctor may not be appropriately trained in mental health issues. – Technophile Mar 20 '14 at 1:57
  • 4
    @Technophile That's not sound medical advice. A psychiatrist does not have a general enough understanding of depression to properly diagnose causes other than psychiatric ones. Depression, although is a mental condition, can be caused by a physical problem. Hormone imbalance, improperly followed diet, organ failure/hyperactivity, and various other physical causes can result in depression. Let your family doctor do the initial diagnostic, since he will be better equipped, both in experience and resources, to do the initial diagnostic than a psychiatrist. – Nelson Feb 29 '16 at 2:40
  • @Technophile One of the points I raise in my answer is how people's perspective is misguided. Thinking that depression is a serious mental illness is insensitive and wrong. People automatically go to thoughts of psychiatry and other pop culture ideas often seen in movies. That is the problem with disclosing to your employer that you are suffering from depression, and why this is a private matter between the patient and family doctor. People can suffer depression over very simple things like trying to quit smoking. That doesn't mean they need a psychiatrist. – user7360 Feb 29 '16 at 14:23
  • 1
    It's not just laymen who think that depressed people could maybe just use some more sleep... Sleep apnea 'could be misdiagnosed as depression' More than 70% of people with sleep apnea experience symptoms of depression, according to a new study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. Researchers say their findings indicate a possibility that the sleep condition could be misdiagnosed as depression. But yes, in any event, a proper medical diagnosis is in order. – HopelessN00b Mar 4 '16 at 15:26
  • 6
    @Nelson Psychiatrists are medical doctors and therefore more often than not acutely aware of all of the factors that go into clinical depression and/or anxiety. I agree that a general physician should be consulted, but they should generally defer to a psychiatrist if there isn't a more prevalent medical condition in play which may be the primary cause of the depression (note: it rarely is). – casperOne May 11 '16 at 20:04
24

Mental health is a serious issue and may certainly be something you'd want to raise with a team leader, but like all choices there are some issues you want to cover. As to who I'd speak with, I would definately arrange to talk with your line manager (the person responsible for your performance, and ulitmately signs your pay check) and a human resource rep, rather than a team or project leader.

The pros of disclosure

Depression is a serious concern, and if left untreated will have an impact on your performance. No one is perfect, and if your performance has been good in the past, a good workplace will understand. They should try to support you. Good staff are hard to find, so helping you to stay healthy is their priority too.

Similarly, your employer may have a special arrangement with a workplace psychologist and can refer you to assist with your recovery.

The cons of disclosure

Without making the problem worse, you need to be aware that a bad workplace may be less understanding, and consider this your problem (it isn't) and may try and use this as a reason to dismiss you (they shouldn't). There may also be insurance issues, depending on where you are located.

Clinically diagnosed depression is a serious health issue, and while in time it can be treated and overcome, you and your employer need to treat it like any illness. I would consider strongly your relationship with your employer and your manager before approaching them, but hope that you work in an area where you can discuss this in the proper manner.

  • 4
    I did, and am glad that I did. – user2240 Jun 21 '13 at 8:29
  • @JoeStrazzere Absolutely there is a difference, but if someone is feeling "depressed" enough to want to tell their supervisor, they should definitely speak with a professional about it. – user9158 Jun 21 '13 at 13:29
9

A lot depends on the people you work with and the environment. Workmates who are not good at empathizing are probably not going to help.

This is something I've personally had to deal with as I do suffer from long term depression and have had the same question on whether to tell my team leads or not.

In the end I decided to tell the team leads on the projects I was on as it was affecting my work productivity and thus they needed to know. My team leads were receptive and were happy I was getting help and let me know to inform them if I'd need anything specific. For me it was more to just inform them should I have to disappear off for a day and take the weight off my shoulders of feeling I had to hide it.

Ignoring the social component for a moment, a chronic mental illness is just like any illness. Would you tell your team lead if you had RSI that affected your work? Probably. However unlike RSI, mental illness still has a large social stigma.

So,

Pros:

  • Help from the team lead to reduce stress and tweak things whilst you get help.
  • Feedback from an independent pair of eyes on what may be the triggers if they are work related.
  • A huge weight off your shoulders as you don't feel like you're hiding things anymore.

Cons/Risks:

  • A less sensitive lead could blow it off or use it to harass/belittle you.
  • No actual change.
  • Being viewed as unstable and dangerous.
  • Loss of job depending on where you are in the world.

Essentially it does boil down on to just how much one trusts their team lead. If you don't then that may be exacerbating the depression and signal you need to get out pronto.

  • 3
    +1 for good advice and I'd give it another +1 if I could for sharing. – user7360 Jun 21 '13 at 14:15
4

Depression is a tricky subject. My advice here would be to get it diagnosed and then, once you do get a clinical diagnosis in hand (assuming that is what you get and it's not some other situation which a psychiatrist can more quickly help to remedy), present it as a medical condition. Your boss doesn't need to know that it's depression and not, say, lupus, anymore than they need to know that you have cervical cancer or what have you. The fact that it is a medical diagnosis, and what accommodations ought to be made for you, is all your workplace needs to know about.

That being said, if you're set on letting your boss know, here are the pros and cons:

Pros

  • If it's a large enough company, often there are already mental health related services for you.
  • Some companies may require more information than "here is a note from my doctor", at least at the HR level (although sometimes if the company is large enough there might be protocols in place to prevent this information from leaving that department.

Cons

  • Mental health is still in that range where even otherwise tolerant people, let alone employers, treat it as it's "all in your head", which it is, but then again so is brain cancer. I hesitate to say that this makes them "bad", as the attitude is still fairly pervasive.
  • You may not want to deal with all of the negative fallout of the diagnosis, for many of the reasons noted above.

Risks

  • While it is illegal in the US and most other first world nations to discriminate on the basis of disability, sometimes the lines around mental illness can get a bit fuzzy. Additionally, depending on where you live, proving that you were let go for a disorder can sometimes be tricky, particularly if said disorder led to a documented chain of poor performance before you were let go.
1

If the condition is affecting the work to the point where the manager (and/or team members) notice, then yes the developer needs to request a 1-1 with the manager and explain. The depth of explanation is the thing that needs to be considered. The developer could limit it to "personal medical issues" ... It's probably advisable to leave it in general terms like this, due to possible negative connotations surrounding "depression." ... On the other hand, uncommon behavior is not uncommon in computer people so there probably is little risk of backlash with fully disclosing what's going on. For example, here at Yahoo there are guys who show up to work in pink dresses and high heels and nobody gives them a second glance. Of everyone in the world who is most tolerant of "unusual behavior" is probably computer geeks.

  • I cannot recommend more to leave it as "a personal medical issue" unless you are also friends with your boss. I really don't think "depression" is going to get you any kind of protection under ADA if your work performance is sub-par. It is too easy to document your poor performance. I think an unknown medical condition (to the employer) would buy you some more time to at least get yourself in shape to at least perform at an acceptable level. – Dunk Mar 18 '14 at 22:24
-1

I would absolutely not tell them the name of any medical condition you may have! It's extraordinarily personal and opens them up to being discriminatory.

It would fall under disability discrimination. Also, there is a lot of stigma around certain ailments that might give some uninformed colleagues the willies.

The best thing to do is just tell them that you have ongoing 'medical appointments' and that you will adjust your hours around them. If the depression affects your productivity then just tell them that you have a temporary medical condition you are experiencing and it may affect your productivity for time. If they see you looking sad just say you are very tired from the condition.

Keep tabs on how things go after you tell them and consult an employment lawyer if they start mistreating you.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy