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Disclosing mental illness at work

PostPosted: Sat Aug 01, 2015 10:10 pm
by James Tyler
I work at a small biotech company as a research assistant (BS degree level) doing in vivo work (working with hamsters, rabbits and other animals). The work mainly involves doing many different surgical procedures and many different injections in different types of animals. A lot of what we do is drug development. I have been working here for 4 months. There is a very high emphasis on teamwork because we usually do tasks together. I have been exposed to lots of techniques over the past few months and I still have a lot more to learn. I’m constantly being exposed to new things every week, so there’s a lot to remember. I’m still in my training phase. For certain techniques, I rarely get to practice them because everything is so busy, so it takes a while to learn certain things because the training for that technique might be spread out over a long period of time. I have gotten great feedback; my direct supervisor and coworkers have told me that I’m a hard worker, smart and have lots of potential.

Unfortunately, I have ADD (attention deficit disorder). I’m on medication for it. I have problems with attention and memory. My coworkers have told me that I have problems with attention and memory and that it has been going on for a few months and I continue to have the same problems. This had led to me making many mistakes, sometimes every day. The mistakes are almost always small, careless errors (like forgetting a step in a procedure that won’t ruin the experiment or a mistake that can be corrected); it’s rare that the mistakes cause severe problems. I have trouble following certain directions. Sometimes it’s something as simple as someone telling me to change out the water bottle for an animal; I’ll forget to do it or I’ll do it incorrectly, even though I’ve been instructed on it numerous times in the past. I frequently repeat questions and my coworkers have to repeat instructions to me that they’ve already told me a few days or weeks ago and they feel like I’m not paying attention to them when they speak to me. I rarely work with my direct supervisor in the lab, so he finds out about my performance through my coworkers (but he has noticed the attention and memory problems as well). One of my coworkers told me that she doesn’t expect my problems to improve immediately; she wants to see gradual improvement over time. She said that I have been showing slight improvements in some areas, but some problems haven’t changed. My coworkers and direct supervisor tell me that I’m very open to criticism and feedback, which they appreciate. Aside from that, I’m getting along with everyone socially and making friends and I have no attitude problems. I think it’s also worth mentioning that no one in the company has any sort of mental illness that impairs their ability to do their job, and no one has ever been on any medication for any mental illness that might interfere with job performance.

I’m worried that my ADD will cause me to get fired if my problems continue or get worse. Should I disclose my ADD? Should I disclose that I’m on medication? What are the benefits and risks of disclosing my ADD? What are the benefits and risks of not disclosing my ADD?

If they ask if I have ADD or any mental illness, should I tell them that I have ADD? If they ask if I’m on any medications, should I tell them that I’m on medication for ADD?

How likely is it that I’ll be fired? What would cause me to get fired? Are they likely to give me a final warning or will they probably fire me without giving me a final warning?

If it gets to the point where I get a final warning and they tell me I’ll be fired if I don’t improve, should I disclose my ADD and the fact that I take medication for it?

What have you seen regarding mental illnesses in the workplace that interfere with job performance?

Re: Disclosing mental illness at work

PostPosted: Sat Aug 01, 2015 11:01 pm
by Rich Lemert
If your company offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), talk to one of the councilors there. Any interactions with this program are supposed to be confidential, and they'll have both the legal and the medical expertise to advise you. They may also be able to provide you with training on coping strategies to help you work around your ADD.

Also, consider this: There are two issues you have to take into account if you wait until they're ready to let you go to reveal your condition. On the one hand, you don't have much to lose at that point. They were going to let you go anyway, so you can't make anything worse by your revelation. On the other hand, it could also be seen as a last-ditch attempt to garner sympathy and keep your job. While it might appear to work, and can also generate a lot of lingering resentment.

Personally, I would let either my manager or my HR people know about my situation. However, I would go into the conversation prepared to identify the accommodations needed to help me meet the needs of the job. For instance, maybe you've found that you function better at certain times of the day, and you could arrange to have your more challenging duties take place at that time. Or maybe it would help if you had a checklist you could refer to for your assignments, and your coworkers could help you prepare them. It might require a little extra effort on their part in the short term, but if it helps you learn faster and do your job better it will save them effort in the long run. Again, the people running the EAP should be able to help with this task.

Privacy Rights

PostPosted: Sun Aug 02, 2015 4:28 am
by John D. D,
I think you should not disclose, but at the same time, you have to assume responsibility for getting the job done - especially as it involves animal welfare.

What is interesting about ADHD is that many, many children are diagnosed with it (plethora of articles on raising kids with it), but there are almost no articles on parents with ADHD raising kids. The distracted science professor is a stereotype with some truth (people become so focused on one problem that they can't remember to do other tasks).

Take the job as an opportunity to train yourself to focus better by working with something you really care about. You may have to triple check your work, where the next guy only goes through it once. Or ask people to have a written checklist of instructions that you check off as you work through them. Since your coworkers have already pointed out that they have noticed an attention problem, asking for additional help toward improved performance in the form of small additional efforts by your coworkers, should simply come off as trying to address their concerns.

Even if you lose your job because you can't do it, I think it is ultimately in your long-term interest to maintain privacy. There are other jobs where attention may not be as important if you eventually do lose this one.

Additionally, I don't think it is appropriate to discuss/disclose anyone else's experience with health issues.

Re: Disclosing mental illness at work

PostPosted: Sun Aug 02, 2015 7:49 am
by Dave Walker
Hi James,

Thanks for sharing your problem with us -- it should make for an illuminating discussion. I hope others might be able to chime in with first-hand experience in this sensitive subject.

If possible, I would encourage you to get more information before making any statement at work that might "put things in motion" one way or another. Rich's suggestion of talking to EAP or asking your HR department about EAP resources is a good one. If it were me in the job, I would like to speak to someone knowledgeable about the law behind this situation and also how to best resolve it. A kind of counselor -- I might even talk to a labor lawyer just for information if I could find one -- seems perfect to discuss the options.

I say this because there may be labor laws in your state around disclosing mental illnesses at work.

Are there ADHD labor/advocacy groups? Or perhaps an ADHD community to provide advice?

I have no experience with ADHD, but I know someone who was diagnosed with a mental illness (bipolar disorder) while working. They used a support network that encouraged talking to a doctor and therapist, who both had practical suggestions for dealing with work. Especially the doctor. I was surprised by this, but I shouldn't have been: the doctor has seen hundreds of patients and had a lifetime of advice to give.

Re: Disclosing mental illness at work

PostPosted: Sun Aug 02, 2015 11:30 am
by James Tyler
Thanks for all the advice; I really appreciate it.

I don’t know of any EAP at my company. I know it would be confidential, but the company is small (about 20 people), so I’d be worried about word getting out somehow. Based on the responses here, I think I’d feel most comfortable keeping my ADD confidential.

I’m curious about an ethical gray area though, if you want to call it that.

I’m unsure of what to do if they flat out ask me if I have any mental illness or if I’m on medication. If they blatantly ask me if I have ADD, what should I say? What if they ask me if I’m on any medications that treat attention or memory problems? Would it be best to tell them that I don’t have ADD and I don’t take medications for attention and memory problems?

Would it be a better idea to portray myself as someone who just has trouble with attention and memory but has no mental illness?

Also, do you think there is a stigma for taking medication that improves attention (Ritalin)? Would I be better off not telling anyone that I take it?

Re: Disclosing mental illness at work

PostPosted: Sun Aug 02, 2015 12:09 pm
by Nate W.
Dave Walker wrote:

Are there ADHD labor/advocacy groups? Or perhaps an ADHD community to provide advice?

I have no experience with ADHD, but I know someone who was diagnosed with a mental illness (bipolar disorder) while working. They used a support network that encouraged talking to a doctor and therapist, who both had practical suggestions for dealing with work. Especially the doctor. I was surprised by this, but I shouldn't have been: the doctor has seen hundreds of patients and had a lifetime of advice to give.

Hi James,

This is a tough one. HR is in the business of protecting the company, not you. I have known many employees who have confided in HR only to be disappointed.

However, Dave's idea of talking with an attorney or a medical professional that specializes in ADHD is a good one. All conversations with such professionals are held in confidence. This is not true of any conversations with EAP, your boss, or HR. You would probably qualify for special accommodations under ADA. Check with the CHADD organization and the EEOC.

Re: Disclosing mental illness at work

PostPosted: Sun Aug 02, 2015 4:52 pm
by Rich Lemert
If you're flat-out asked about your situation, things become a lot more complex. If you say no, you don't have any problems - and they find out that you are being treated, you've just given them ammunition to fire you for lying.

Some people are 'uptight' about Ritalin, but you can't control their attitude. All you can do is point out that you are using an approved treatment under the direction of a qualified medical practitioner.

I'm curious, though, about your repeated use of the phrase "mental illness". Is this a self-characterization, or a term that others have applied to you? I was under the impression that ADD was not an illness, but merely a sign that you were not in the main part of the bell curve. My son has been diagnosed with ADD, but I don't think anyone's ever tried to tell him he's got a mental illness.

Rights of nondisclosure

PostPosted: Wed Aug 05, 2015 8:41 am
by John D. D,
I think that this situation can be addressed more globally in the community, by "don't ask, don't tell" policies that are adopted on both ends by everyone in the community. Politically, government has implemented 5th amendment protections. If one works for the government, for example, H. Clinton, and aspires to protection/promotion, then apparently cooperation with one's potentially supervised organizations is suggested i.e. full faith in the system to be able to get it right.

On a smaller level of organization, I think it becomes ethically very problematic to deny people medical care and employment because they won't answer questions, or allow the collection of information, that ultimately usually end up having massive organizational consequences that are extremely oppressive for the individual involved.

So, to keep it simple, I'm suggesting we all adopt policies that don't ask, and give those who are already stigmatized enough, the opportunity to prove their ability.

Re: Disclosing mental illness at work

PostPosted: Wed Aug 05, 2015 9:49 am
by Ana
Hi James,

I had an experience that while no being exactly your same situation could helpful for you to hear.

Years ago I was going through very difficult problems at home and at that time I was a scientist at a lab, so I was doing benchwork. It was also a company, like in your case, and as a result of my problems at home I could not perform well at work. I didn’t want to get into details then or now, but I was only sleeping every other night. Sleeping every other night for some period of time causes what in mice we would call a sleep deprivation-induced memory deficit. And to some extent it had many of the same symptoms of ADD.

I didn’t want to speak about my problems at work because that was the only place where I could feel “normal” so I wanted to preserve that. I also was ashamed. But I had problems with experiments. I couldn’t remember 3 digit numbers, for example, so I could not sort eppendorf tubes into the freezer and place them in their right boxes because we had a three digits code system and I couldn’t retain the numbers for the 5 seconds that it would take me to look at the tube and then look for the corresponding box. I also had big problems calculating dilutions and that’s the basic lab skill for preparing all sort of solutions. And I couldn’t remember in what line of the 96-well plate I added compounds when running important experiments, to give you another example. My coworkers were seeing it and I needed to say something, so I can relate to how you are feeling now.

I talked to my two closest lab mates about me having memory problems due to sleep deprivation, and that I didn’t know for how long I would continue to not sleep every day. They were both very understanding and wanted to know if they could help me outside the lab as well. Because I had talked to them, we could start some coping strategies. Here are some examples for the specific problems I listed before:
- someone else would return the tubes to the fridge,
- one of the technicians would go through my calculations before I started my experiments to check for errors,
- in my 96-well plates I would leave the top row empty (no experiment in that row) but I would add liquids by entire columns, so the wells in the first row would serve as reporters of where I had or had not added the compounds based on the presence/absence of liquid in them.

These are just some specific examples James of how you could make it easier for you and your colleagues if you are open about your limitations. If they are seeing it and you don’t explain why, they will think you are distracted or lazy or taking drugs (the other type), or something along those lines that will not address the problem and just create more conflicts.

My problems during meetings (my brain would go blank in the middle of conversations) also flagged to my managers, not just my lab mates, that something was wrong with me. And this disclosure was the one I feared the most. My direct manager was very concerned and asked me if I needed to take time off to take care of whatever was going on in my life (I didn’t, work was my safe place). His manager, the lady who had hired me, gave me her cell phone number and private address and asked me to call if I ever needed anything and to know that I could stay at her place. Those were the two managers I talked to and I’m glad I did. They had more patience with me during meetings because they knew I was doing the most I could.

ADD behaviour in the lab or the office is not per se a reason for firing. Talking about it means you and your colleagues can work around it. The situation is different if you think your performance or your behaviour were already a problem, and this would just add to those problems.

In a group of 20 people someone must have have had some depression, some anxiety problems, some other medical problems, or their partner or their child or their close friends. You are not the only person with a problem James. Even if they haven’t had first hand experience with ADD they will relate to someone having a problem that prevents them from performing well enough in some domains.

I can’t recommend you what to do (other than don't talk to HR), but I really hope my story helps you think about different scenarios.


Re: Disclosing mental illness at work

PostPosted: Sat Aug 08, 2015 4:12 pm
by James Tyler
Rich- I’d say the term “mental illness” is more of a self-characterization. Some people refer to ADD as a learning disability and some refer to it as a mental illness. I classify it as a mental illness because it’s a physiological disorder and something that requires medication to treat. I don’t mean it in a denigrating way, however.

I have another thing that I’m very concerned about.

In situations like mine, does the supervisor usually give a final warning before the employee is fired? Like I said, I’ve been hearing lots of negative feedback from my coworkers regarding my ADD-linked behaviors over the past few months and they have been giving me the same feedback over and over. If my problems persist and I don’t improve enough, I’m wondering if my supervisor will fire me without a final warning or if he’ll give me a final warning about needing to improve. My coworkers have told me that I’ve been showing slight improvement, but my level of attention still isn’t where they need it to be. On the plus side, my coworkers said that I’ve been improving with technical skills and I understand how to do the work; I have a good attitude; people know that I work hard and care about the job; and I’m very open to feedback.

I’ve been here for 4 months so far, and I’ve been hearing the negative feedback for the last few months. How many more months, usually, would it take for someone in my situation to be fired without being given a final warning? If they usually aren’t fired before given a final warning, when would they be given a final warning?