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Blog>Guides>Job & Career Guide for People with Mental Illness

Job & Career Guide for People with Mental Illness

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Employment can be an essential part of ongoing recovery for those diagnosed with mental health disorders. As with all professionals, people with mental health challenges can find purpose, productivity and consistency in a good job.

Moreover, employment offers more tangible advantages: steady work empowers financial independence, while employer-based insurance can ease access to care. For reasons that are both personal and practical, many people with mental health disorders seek to balance self-care with fulfilling careers.

Unfortunately, people with mental health conditions often find themselves sidelined from the workforce, despite their considerable talents and skills. The stigmatization of mental illness limits job prospects for millions of individuals — despite legal protections designed to prevent this kind of discrimination. This is particularly true for individuals with certain disorders. People with schizophrenia, for example, are six to seven times more likely to be unemployed than the general population.

schizophrenia asset

Additionally, people with concerns about their mental or emotional wellness may struggle to find employment that suits their needs. Stressful or unsupportive work environments can exacerbate mental health challenges, especially when employers resist helpful accommodations. Because managers are often poorly informed about common difficulties, such as depression and anxiety, they fail to recognize and respect employees’ needs.

If you’re looking for a new job, how can you prioritize your own mental health in the process? Should you disclose your condition to prospective employers?

Even if you’re happy in your current gig, difficult choices often arise. If you need time off to rest or seek treatment, how should you approach your boss or HR? Simply understanding your options can be intimidating, from the details of the Family Medical Leave Act to the fine print in your insurance policy.

We created this comprehensive guide addressing mental health concerns in the workplace. By covering a range of employment-related subjects, we hope to eliminate some of the barriers that keep people with mental health conditions from finding and getting great jobs.

Whether you’re looking for a new opportunity, or want to discuss your mental health needs with your current employer, we’ll provide clear answers and tips to help you succeed.

Part I: Jobs for People with a Mental Health Condition

Looking for a job can get stressful for anyone — from updating your resume, to preparing for interviews, the process entails plenty of anxious moments. If you have a mental health condition, these feelings may be especially strong.

During this challenging time, don’t hesitate to utilize your existing support network, such as loved ones, friends, and mental health professionals. It may also be helpful to keep a few key thoughts in mind.

First, the hiring process is a two-way street. Just as employers evaluate your application, you get to choose the job that fits you best. Second, you don’t have to look alone. There are plenty of agencies and organizations eager to help. Last but not least, you get to decide how much you disclose about your mental health challenges, and your privacy is paramount.

Let’s break down each of these ideas in more detail, to help you find a job that suits your needs and talents.

Finding Work That Works for You

If you’re eager to start working, you may be tempted to apply to as many jobs as possible. This drive and flexibility will certainly come in handy, both during your job hunt and once you start in a new position.

Before you begin applying anywhere, take the time to evaluate your own needs and preferences, especially in relation to your mental health condition. While obtaining employment is an important objective, your long-term well-being is your top priority. Here are some ways to assess which jobs might work best for you.

  • Work environment. What kind of workplace will you thrive in? Consider the various aspects of each potential employer, from the professional culture to the physical setting. For instance, some careers demand active collaboration, while others require more autonomy. Pursue opportunities that will highlight your strengths, but will also permit you to grow.
  • Schedule. For individuals with a heavy schedule of medical or therapy appointments, a full-time 9 to 5 shift may not be the best fit. Your care should come first, so don’t sacrifice the routine that empowers your well-being. Additionally, you may find that a part-time gig is a perfect way to transition back into the workforce, rather than jumping right into an overwhelming schedule.
  • Supports and benefits. Does the company have the leadership, resources, and policies in place to support your sustained success? You might be drawn to larger corporations, which typically employ HR professionals skilled in accommodating a diverse array of employees. Conversely, you might seek out small businesses, where the leadership team can engage with you more directly. Either way, be mindful of their benefits offerings. If a company offers exceptional health insurance, you’ll never be forced to forego the care you need.

Outside of the traditional job hunt, there are many valuable opportunities that could pave the way for future professional success. If you’ve been out of the workforce for some time, or want to test the waters before a full return to work, these kinds of experiences could smooth your transition to a subsequent career.

  • Volunteering. By volunteering with a charitable organization, you can build skills, confidence, and connections while readjusting to the rhythms of professional life. Additionally, volunteer positions afford more scheduling flexibility, meaning you can increase or scale back your hours as needed. VolunteerMatch is an excellent resource for finding local positions that suit your interests and aptitudes.
  • The Gig Economy. From ridesharing to dog walking, there are plenty of ways to establish an income stream through apps and other platforms. These opportunities aren’t for everyone, and some may even find them isolating. But they do provide clear advantages such as the fact that you set your own schedule, so you can always make medical or therapy appointments. If you need to reduce your hours in order to practice some self-care, it’s no problem.
"Work that works for you" infographic.

Getting Help on Your Hunt

Whether it's a professional mentor or your mom reviewing your resume, most job searchers need a second opinion from time to time. For those with a mental health condition, it’s important to remember that your search for a job doesn’t have to be a solo mission. You have services at your disposal that you may not have considered — and many of them are free.

  • Government employment services. Federal, state, and local government agencies provide assistance to people in search of work and often have special programs for individuals with physical or mental health challenges. For example, the Department of Labor sponsors over 2,000 American Job Centers nationwide, providing free access to computers, career counseling, and other services. These centers are equipped to help individuals with mental health conditions identify local opportunities, and often provide the training necessary for a career transition.
  • Vocational rehabilitation programs. Government agencies and nonprofit organizations often provide rehabilitation services to individuals with mental health conditions, helping clients overcome barriers to employment and find quality jobs. Goodwill is one major provider of these services, connecting people with various challenges and abilities with solid work opportunities. Because the structure and content of these programs differ significantly, we recommend thoroughly researching all the options in your local area in order to find the right fit. To get started, find an agency in your state that oversees vocational rehabilitation programs.
  • Mental health occupational therapy services. While occupational therapists are often associated with overcoming physical challenges, people with mental health conditions can also benefit from their services. Occupational therapists who specialize in mental health can help you develop habits and coping strategies that support professional success. These services are quite similar to vocational rehabilitation in many regards, but may have a more clinical emphasis. If you currently see a mental health professional, he or she may be able to make a referral to an occupational therapist with relevant expertise.
  • Your college or alma mater. If you attended college or are currently enrolled, you may be entitled to career counseling services offered by your school. Most colleges and universities assist alumni long after graduation, so don’t overlook this free resource at any age.
Looking for a healthy work opportunity?

Debating Disclosure: What to Tell a Prospective Employer

Evaluating your options and sending in applications are major steps in your job search, and completing them is no small accomplishment. The next step in the process brings its own challenges: Job interviews can make even the most accomplished professionals anxious.

For people with mental health conditions, the interview process can be especially daunting. What should you share about your challenges and recovery? Would it be appropriate to describe your past struggles and personal growth? What can you decide to keep private, and what are your legal protections against discrimination?

These choices can be complicated, and the optimal approach will differ depending on your circumstances. We’ll fill you in on what you need to know in hopes that it will empower you to decide what to disclose in a job interview.

You’re Legally Protected Against Discrimination

The Americans with Disabilities Act establishes clear protections for job applicants: employers cannot decide against hiring you simply because you have a mental health condition. If you were to disclose your mental health condition in the context of a job interview, it would be illegal for a company to reject you on the basis of that information.

However, the law specifies a few exceptions, such as if you could not perform the job after “reasonable accommodations” were made. (In the next section, we’ll discuss reasonable accommodations in more detail.) Valid safety concerns constitute another exception.

In making these determinations, employers can’t rely on myths or stereotypes. For example, a hiring manager could not turn you away on the mistaken belief that all people with mental health conditions are violent.

ADA asset

You Don’t Have to Disclose During the Application Process

With very few exceptions, prospective employers cannot legally inquire about your medical history during the application process — and those rules absolutely prevent inquiries about your mental health. While some organizations (such as federal contractors) may invite you to disclose disabilities, you cannot be required to do so.

However, employers may inadvertently ask questions that touch upon your mental health condition. An interviewer might reasonably inquire about your ability to perform in high-pressure situations or under demanding deadlines. Alternatively, you could be asked about a gap in your employment history during which you sought treatment.

In response to these questions, you can choose how much to share. If you decide not to disclose your mental health condition, you aren’t being dishonest — you’re simply asserting your legal right to privacy.

Also, it helps to remember that you can keep things brief. If someone asks about a gap in your work history, for instance, you could simply say, “I was dealing with medical challenges, but I’m excited to return to my career.” Most interviewers will respect your boundaries and not attempt to pry further.

As we’ll discuss later, you may need to share more once you’re hired to secure reasonable accommodations, but don’t feel pressured to disclose anything during the interview process. Your privacy is paramount.

You Might Want to Open Up Anyway

While you won’t be forced to discuss your mental health in an interview, you might still decide to. After all, you’re interviewing them as well. If you’re open about your mental health condition, you can assess how supportive a prospective employer might be by observing their reaction. Once you disclose, you’re legally protected from discrimination — and their response might tell you a lot about their qualities as an employer.

Additionally, discussing your mental health needs might allow a prospective employer to begin making reasonable accommodations right after hiring you. For example, if you plan to request flexible scheduling to accommodate therapy appointments, the company might use the time before your start date to make arrangements accordingly. This timing could help you hit the ground running in your new role.

Of course, this approach requires a lot of trust. Because stigma against mental illness remains prevalent, you may decide to save these discussions until after you’re hired. Alternatively, if you’re comfortable with complete transparency, it might make the accommodations process move more quickly once you’re hired. Again, the choice is entirely yours.

Part II: Discussing Your Mental Health Needs at Work

Mental health conditions affect millions of Americans who are actively employed. One in five Americans have a diagnosable mental health disorder, and many of them maintain rewarding careers. One recent study, for example, found that 6 to 7% of American workers live with major depression.

mental health disorder graphic

Still, you may feel some uncertainty or trepidation about communicating your mental health needs at work. Will your manager or company leadership respond dismissively to your request for accommodations? Will your employer view your condition as an onerous burden? Research consistently shows that employees are hesitant to discuss mental health challenges, wary of resentment or judgment from colleagues.

As in the job application process, no law requires you to disclose a mental health condition to your current employer. Similarly, employers can’t demand that you answer questions about your medical history in most cases. Still, you'll need to disclose your illness if you want to request any accommodations or a leave of absence based on your mental health condition. Keep in mind that you may also be asked to provide some documentation from a mental health professional if you ask for special accommodations.

If you feel an accommodation would help you succeed professionally, don’t let worries about others’ judgments prevent you from asserting your rights and needs. Employers have good reasons to support mental health among their staff. While financial estimates vary, experts agree that mental illness costs businesses hundreds of billions of dollars a year in lost productivity and decreased performance. With a more conscientious approach to mental health, companies can avoid these outcomes.

In the long run, supporting employee well-being is a wise investment. By positioning you to succeed, your boss will reap long-term rewards. Moreover, your needs could set a useful precedent, helping the company support other employees with similar experiences. Discussing your mental health may not be easy, but if doing so will help you excel, it’s a conversation worth having.

In this section of this guide, we’ll walk you through some of the subjects you may need to navigate with your new or current company. From reasonable accommodations to taking a leave of absence, we’ll provide advice on how to raise mental health topics with your employer.

Obtaining Reasonable Accommodations

If a company employs 15 or more individuals, it’s required by law to make simple changes to support staff members with any kind of disability. These adjustments are called “reasonable accommodations,” and refer to modest shifts in workplace practice or policy to empower employees to perform their duties. The Americans with Disabilities Act distinguishes these changes from those that would cause “undue hardship,” disrupting the organization’s operations in a significant way.

If you have a diagnosed mental health condition and your employer has 15 or more people on staff, you’re entitled to request a reasonable accommodation. But what sort of changes would qualify as “reasonable,” and which would help you succeed at work? The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suggests these examples of possible reasonable accommodations for people with mental health conditions.

  • An altered work or break schedule, so that you can schedule therapy or medical appointments
  • Permission to work from home
  • A quiet office space or white noise machine to minimize auditory stimulus
  • Changes in supervisory methods, such as written instructions
accommodations asset

It’s important to note that you don’t need to be in crisis to make an accommodation request. Even if you’re feeling relatively well, you can make a request that will improve your comfort or performance in the workplace. If your symptoms fluctuate over time, you can request accommodations based on when they’re most severe.

You can request a reasonable accommodation at any time, including during the application process or immediately after being hired. If you do intend to ask, it’s probably best to do so proactively rather than when difficulties arise. If you choose to request a reasonable accommodation, here’s a rough outline of what the process entails.

  • Step 1: Tell your manager, HR representative, or another appropriate team member about your condition. Before beginning the conversation, decide how you want to describe your mental health challenges. You can use broad terms or specific medical language, but it may be best to keep your verbiage direct and simple to avoid ambiguity. There should be no doubt that you’re describing a diagnosable medical issue.
  • Step 2: Describe the reasonable accommodation you’re requesting in concrete detail. Explain exactly how the accommodation will empower you to succeed at work. While the law does not require you to demand a particular accommodation, having clarity about your needs will help your employer help you.
  • Step 3: Provide any necessary documentation of your mental health condition. An employer may require your mental health provider to sign a form confirming that a reasonable accommodation will help you perform your duties. In some instances, a company will ask to contact your provider directly. If so, contact your provider in advance to sign any necessary confidentiality releases.
  • Step 4: Check in often until the accommodation is made. Though you can’t expect the change to occur instantaneously, you’re well within your rights to be persistent. Delays can be frustrating, but remember to keep your communication cordial. You can be assertive without being unprofessional.

Before initiating this process, know that you may meet resistance and resentment from colleagues or company leadership. Many people are poorly informed about mental health concerns, and their comments and conduct may come off as insensitive.

If you experience harassment or discrimination after requesting an accomodation, don’t hesitate to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They can also assist if your accommodation request is denied unfairly.

Taking a Leave of Absence

Even when reasonable accommodations are made, you may still need some time away from work to manage your mental health condition. If you’re dealing with a one-off mental health episode or simply need a day to take care of yourself, taking a sick day is entirely appropriate.

If you feel pressure to explain your absence, state that you need a day off for “mental health reasons.” A well-trained manager will know not to probe further — unless your absences start to pile up. If you’re struggling to work consistently, another solution may be necessary.

If you do need an extended period of time away from work, you may be entitled to protection under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). To qualify, your organization must employ more than 50 people and you need to have worked there for at least a year.

Under FMLA provisions, you can request up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to address a mental health crisis. During this period, your company must preserve your job position and benefits, allowing you to return to your current position. However, your employer can require you to exhaust your paid time off and sick days to cover part of the FMLA period.

12 weeks for health crisis

If you do need to request a leave of absence under FMLA, the process will be similar to requesting a reasonable accommodation. You may be required to provide documentation from a mental health professional certifying that your medical condition warrants the time away from work. Additionally, you could be asked to provide proof of ongoing illness if you extend your leave.

If your company is too small to be covered by FMLA provisions, you can still ask for unpaid leave to address a mental health crisis. Unfortunately, they won’t be legally required to hold you job while you rest or seek help, but if you have a trusting relationship with company leaders, it may be worthwhile to make the request. From their perspective, waiting for you to return healthy could be much better than forcing you to struggle through.

Utilizing Insurance

Roughly half of Americans obtain health insurance coverage through their employers, so there’s a good chance you’ll be looking to pay for mental health services through an employer-sponsored plan. If your company employs more than 50 people, the company is legally bound to observe federal mental health parity laws in providing health insurance. Additionally, the Affordable Care Act requires the vast majority of plans to include mental health and behavioral health coverage.

In combination, these laws effectively require your employer-based plan to cover mental health services in a manner equivalent to what it provides for other medical procedures. For example, you can’t be required to pay a separate or higher deductible for mental health services. These protections have revolutionized benefits for workers with mental health challenges, making vital services more affordable for millions.

However, understanding the fine print of your employer-sponsored plan can be excruciatingly difficult. If you need help assessing which plan will work best for mental health services or keeping your current provider, you may want to talk to your HR representative about your options.

If you do decide to take this route, you can expect HR to protect your privacy. Legally speaking, they’re bound to keep your medical information confidential in most circumstances. If you ask them about mental health coverage when selecting a plan, it would be illegal for them to share this info with your colleagues or discriminate against you in any way.

Of course, if you request a reasonable accommodation or a leave of absence, HR professionals may need to share your info with others, such as your boss. A well-trained HR professional will explain those disclosures to you in detail, and you can request that info if they don’t.

Part III: Relevant Resources

We hope this guide has offered some valuable tips and insights about finding a job and succeeding at work with a mental health condition. While more can certainly be said on these subjects, our suggestions can form the basis of your own reflection and research.

Once again, we encourage you to seek additional support from your friends, family and mental health professionals as you navigate professional opportunities and challenges. Along this journey, you may have more allies that you think.

Throughout this guide, we’ve mentioned several resources to help you access information and services. We’ll list them again so you can access them more easily — and add a few more you might find helpful.

General Support and Information for People with Mental Health Conditions

Employment Assistance Programs for People with Mental Health Conditions

Workplace Rights and Protections for People with Mental Health Conditions

Identifying Opportunities: How We Can Help

On your path to professional success, there’s one last resource you might want to consider: our Joblist database! We provide an extensive and constantly updated record of job listings in your area, so you never miss new opportunities. More importantly, our platform allows you to customize your search parameters, letting you find the perfect gig in less time.

While we take pride in helping anyone identify exciting employment prospects, we’re especially devoted to helping applicants with diverse needs, abilities, and backgrounds. If you have a mental health condition, we’re be honored if you’d make us an ally in your search for the perfect job. Try our platform today! The perfect fit could be just a few clicks away.

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