According to labour law expert Peter Strasheim, there is no legal obligation to ever disclose a mental illness. But if you want to or need to, you can at any time, safe in the knowledge that South African labour law will protect you from unfair treatment and dismissal.
Strasheim argues that it can be beneficial to let your employer know you have depression. “Disclosing will almost always be an advantage, and is recommended if or when the effects of a mental illness you live with, or the medication you take for it are seriously affecting your ability to perform job tasks,” he says.
In this case, Strasheim recommends first consulting with your own health professional (or the company’s) for advice, and then arranging a private meeting with HR to confirm that your illness has become disabling. You can then request your right to reasonable accommodations.
Your employer must help to address the effect of your illness on your ability to work, and make it easier for you to perform your duties, based on suggestions from your psychologist or psychiatrist.
If you do decide to tell your boss about your depression...
Strasheim suggests the following:
- Keep your disclosure simple.
- Outline your difficulty by explaining the general effects it has for you. Most managers and HR practitioners have not been trained to understand, manage or respond to mental health disclosure and needs. Just giving them your clinical diagnosis is going to be unhelpful. Use words like “I have a condition or illness that affects my thought processes, judgment or emotions.”
- If a bit more detail seems appropriate, explain that your difficulty relates to, for example, how you relate to stress, neurological difficulty, biochemical imbalance or a brain function issue.
- Remember that your employer is obliged to respect your privacy and ensure that your disclosure is kept confidential.
Of course, disclosure of a mental illness does not come without risk. Strasheim explains: “In the workplace, other employees’ ignorance, unfounded fears and unfair stereotyping, and the prejudice these lead to are real. In South Africa, the workplace emphases are on race, gender and HIV/ AIDS. Most employers don’t have mental health policies or even a disability policy.”
If you’re not sure whether or not you should speak to your boss, consult with a trusted friend, a healthcare professional, or a labour consultant or lawyer first.
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