Five Ways to Advocate for Yourself In The Workplace While Living with A Mental Health Condition

Johane Alexis-Phanor
6 min readMay 11, 2023

Every year, mental health conditions like depression can cost employers up to $51 billion in lost productivity. And while the pandemic worsened the mental health conditions of millions of people in the US, one silver lining is that some employers did respond with initiatives to support the overall mental well-being of their workers.

Remote work, mental health days, four-day workweeks, and enhanced counseling benefits and apps are now more prevalent. Yet these investments in employee mental health are not enough and not far reaching enough. The unfortunate truth is that there is still a lot of stigma and a lack of education and awareness around mental illness and how it affects workers. There are many companies that don’t provide supportive mental health services and others that discriminate based on mental health conditions.

As you actively work to protect your mental wellbeing, here’s 5 ways to advocate for yourself in the workplace while living with a mental health condition.

1)Know Your Rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act

Familiarize yourself with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The ADA, passed in 1990, protects those with mental impairments or psychiatric disabilities (everything from depression to bipolar disorders) from discrimination. It also requires that your employer provide you with reasonable accommodations. The EEOC is a federal agency that enforces the ADA and other civil rights laws in the workplace. In 1997, the EEOC published the EEOC Enforcement Guidance on the Americans with Disabilities Act and Psychiatric Disabilities to respond to the many questions employers had regarding how to enforce the ADA for those with mental health issues. This document does a great job of defining key terms, providing case studies, and offering examples of what should be done in certain situations. Use the ADA and EEOC to protect yourself. If you decide to disclose your mental health condition to your employer, make sure that they know you are aware of your rights. Open and honest conversations about the ADA will not only help you but it will also help your employer understand their obligations. Although all employers will say they enforce the ADA, many of them only have a cursory understanding of the law. If you feel that you have been discriminated against based on your mental health disability, you should file a formal complaint with the EEOC.

2) Request Reasonable Accommodations

If your mental health affects your work performance, you should ask for reasonable accommodations. Reasonable accommodations can be anything from taking time off, changing your work schedule (e.g. from 9–5 to 10–6 or from full time to part-time), working from home, and more. During the pandemic, many employers provided more flexibility around remote work but now there is some pushback to get workers back in the office. The ADA protects your right to reasonable accommodations and an adjustment can make a huge difference in you being able to meet the requirements of your job. An employer may ask for documentation (i.e a doctor’s note) that pertains only to the disability that requires reasonable accommodations. Even if there are costs associated with reasonable accommodations, as long as the accommodation does not lead to an “undue hardship” (defined as significantly burdensome) to the employer, the law allows it.

3) Secure a Professional Advocate

Most organizations and their human resources personnel will NOT be well equipped to advocate on your behalf; that is YOUR job. Find someone at work you trust who can give you feedback, keep you accountable, and help you navigate work and your mental health. This person may be a great mediator between you and your employer when challenges arise. Meet regularly with this colleague to receive help around meeting your goals. The EEOC formally calls this person a “job coach” and having such a coach is one of the reasonable accommodations that you can ask for even if your employer has to pay for this support. If you can’t find a job coach at work, contact the Job Accommodation Network. This network can serve as a job coach as well as provide knowledge, resources, and guidance on disability employment issues.

4) Be Transparent and Communicative While Setting Realistic Work Goals

Work with your supervisor to set achievable work goals for 3, 6, and 12 month periods. Goal setting will ensure that you have clear endpoints and that your employer has realistic expectations about what you can accomplish. Speak REGULARLY with your supervisor about the progress — -or lack of it — — that you are making towards these goals, and make adjustments when necessary. Setting realistic work goals can also be applied to meetings both in person and virtual. With the prevalence of conference calls, it can be overwhelming to attend so many meetings. It’s ok to request an audio only call. It’s also ok to set some expectations with your employer or client about your availability during a mental health episode. It does not require disclosure. You can say something along the lines that you are experiencing a health challenge and for the next 3 weeks while you recover, you will only be able to meet once a week for scheduled check-ins. Use the technology and new found flexibility that we now have to your advantage.

5) Never, Ever, Give Up

Even if you do steps 1–4 and try to take care of yourself, mental health conditions are challenging. Employers are not always understanding and sometimes you may not have the strength to advocate for yourself. Do not let guilt or shame overwhelm you if things don’t work out. Because mental illness takes a toll on your self-esteem, take some time to write down your accomplishments, even the small ones. Many people won’t understand what you’re going through. Mental illness is a fight that must be waged every day. Nevertheless, you are intelligent, capable, and you should be proud to have made it this far. Take what you’ve learned, incorporate it into the next experience, surround yourself with those who love you, and never give up on your professional dreams.

Joy for the Depressed Black Girl is all the wisdom and knowledge I’ve gained from living with severe depression for 15 years. It is information I wish someone had shared with me at 22 years old at the onset of my mental health struggles. This blog covers everything from faith, spirituality, career, and relationships; gives useful resources; and provides a holistic approach to healing.

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Johane Alexis-Phanor

I write about racial & gender equity, philanthropy, entrepreneurship, faith, and mental health to empower Black communities | Fundraising Consultant