Dear Prudence: Should I tell the office I miss work because of clinical depression?

Help! Should I Tell the Company I Miss Work Because of Clinical Depression?

Help! Should I Tell the Company I Miss Work Because of Clinical Depression?

Advice on manners and morals.
Feb. 29 2016 3:55 PM

Just Not There

Prudie counsels a clinically depressed letter writer on whether it would help or hurt to tell the office.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.

Photo by Sam Breach

Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

depression letter writer.

Photo illustration by Sofya Levina. Image by opolja/Thinkstock

Mallory Ortberg: Hi, everyone! Hope everyone’s hale and hearty and full of interesting problems. Let’s chat.

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Q. Depression and work performance: I am a high-performing individual at my workplace who also suffers from clinical depression and anxiety. I’ve discussed the basic issues with my boss, who seems vaguely supportive without truly understanding—she’s stated that I should do what I need to do for myself without really seeming to understand that sometimes I just can’t bear to come into work because of these illnesses. This year has been challenging so far, and I’ve taken four sick days this year where I’ve supplied other excuses for not being at work. Do I owe it to my boss/company to tell them why I’m really not there? This is a fairly progressive company, but I still fear backlash and prejudice because these are mental vs. physical illnesses.

A: If you work in an office with more than 15 employees and your productivity is affected by your clinical depression (which it sounds like it is), you are covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act. Your employer is required to make “reasonable accommodation” for you, including “schedules which incorporate flex-time … time off for scheduled medical appointments or support groups ... physical arrangements … and joint meetings between the employer, supervisor, and job coach or other employment service providers.” It sounds like your boss is well-meaning but may not have a clear understanding of your condition and what particular needs you might have. I also understand your reluctance to share the specifics of your mental health issues with her, as many people unfamiliar with clinical depression have a vague sense to confuse it with absenteeism or an unwillingness to just “suck it up,” rather than a diagnosable, serious condition that affects brain chemistry.

Since your boss has expressed support for you, however blandly, and you describe your company as progressive, I think it’s worth having a conversation with her and perhaps a member of HR to discuss your needs. Do so gently; frame this as something you need in order to perform your job to the best of your ability, which you want very much to do. I don’t think you should discuss your previous sick days: I understand the stigma against discussing mental health at work and why you felt the need to disguise the reason for your absence, but it’s possible your boss would not hear “I’m so afraid of admitting I need help with my depression that I had to describe it as a physical illness to make sure it would be taken seriously,” but “I’ve told casual lies about not being in the office.” I understand disclosing further specifics of depression is a risky move, but I think you’re in a reasonably safe position to ask for support. I hope you get it. 

Q. Man with a van: I met a guy online, and we’re far enough along that I’ve told some family and friends, but they haven’t met him yet. Here’s the rub: He is currently living in a van, which he has turned into a pretty impressive tiny house. He’s doing it for thoughtful and responsible reasons. I think it’s cool, but I know people in my life are going to find it off-putting and judge him negatively. I want them to meet him first before I explain this. I also don’t want him to know I’m overthinking this and freak him out about meeting people in my life. Should I get it over with and tell them?

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A: I think this is an unnecessary burden you are taking on yourself. Let him tell people. He can explain his thoughtful and responsible reasons better than anyone else. If your friends have questions or politely worded judgments for you afterward, you can handle them as they come, but don’t feel responsible for managing other people’s perceptions of your boyfriend’s living situation. What he does is unusual, and your friends might have questions, and that’s fine. If you come across as desperate to justify his choices, you’ll mostly just come across as desperate.

Q. Should I keep his secret?: My husband has been cheating on me and we’re divorcing. We both come from conservative backgrounds with regard to marriage and fidelity. We each have great relationships with the other’s parents. When we announce to them that we’re ending things, they will want to know why. I don’t think he wants them to know he’s a dishonest dog, and for some reason, I still have this instinct to protect him. Should our parents know the reason? Should I force him to tell them, like “you do it or I will”? If we don’t give up this info, they will come up with their own reasons.

A: There’s no reason to force him to do anything. Don’t go out of your way to start a smear campaign, but don’t lie on his behalf, either. If you’re directly asked why you’re getting a divorce, give a direct answer: “He had an affair. It’s sad, but I’m moving on and wish him the best.” (Maybe drop the “wish him the best” part if you in fact wish something heavy falls on him.) Channel that recent Jennifer Garner interview and bless his heart.

Q. Wrongfully accused: Nearly a year ago my boyfriend and I moved to a new city a few hours away from our hometown. The weekend before we moved, we attended a party thrown by a friend I had known for years but have never been terribly close to. My boyfriend and I do not have Facebook accounts, and we haven’t seen or talked to anyone from that party since, but recently another friend of mine posted a picture of us online, after which I was informed that the party’s host publicly accused my boyfriend of stealing cash from his house. These accusations aren’t true, and he is threatening to get even, which I can only assume is a threat of violence. I tried asking him what brought him to this conclusion, but his only response is that he already talked it over with everyone at the party (except us) and he knows my boyfriend did it. Should we just let this go since he won’t listen to reasoning, or what can we do? He refuses to talk to my boyfriend about it or give any explanation for his reasoning other than that he trusts everyone else at the party more than us. It’s just sad to think that this rumor is going around and we are being threatened because of it and there’s nothing we can do to fix it.

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A: I’m honestly not sure what else you can do. You’ve already moved away (great timing), your friend won’t explain why he thinks your boyfriend stole money from him aside from “I’ve been telling everyone he stole money from me”—it doesn’t sound like anyone else at the party saw your boyfriend take the money—and you know the accusations aren’t true. What can you do besides deny them and move on with your lives? Dragging out this fight won’t do you any good. This “friend” sounds like a master in bringing other people down to his level. Stay away from him. If his threats of violence start getting more specific, report them.

Q. Re: Depression and work performance: No, please don’t tell your boss why you’re not at work. Your employer is just as bound by HIPAA as your doctor’s office is. Your boss is far better off not knowing details about your health because it limits the risk of your boss talking with others about what should be confidential matters. Also, please consider talking to your HR department about whether FMLA can be used in your situation because I’ve worked with situations where others with similar challenges have been able to make use of it.

A: Right, that’s why I suggested the LW not bring up specifically the days she’d been out-of-office, but I do think it’s worth bringing up her depression so that she can secure future accommodation, especially since her boss has demonstrated sympathy for her situation. If the alternative is continuing to miss work at this rate, she could come in for a bad performance review or even be fired.

Q. Re: Depression at work: While your boss is required to make reasonable accommodations, that doesn’t mean you won’t be thought of as the office “head case.” I believe that physical and mental illnesses are basically the same and deserve the same treatment, but in reality the rest of the world can be fairly judgmental. Legally, your job can’t discriminate, but savvy employers and co-workers will find ways to do so discreetly. You don’t owe your employer an explanation legally, whether you have cancer or anxiety. You might want to discuss this with your therapist before deciding how to proceed.

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A: That’s worth considering. I hate to think of her suffering in silence, but you’re right that this could definitely go badly, and she should consult with her therapist and/or doctor about how (or whether) to proceed.

Q. Handicapped parking spots: I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the etiquette of calling out people who illegally park in handicapped spots. On one hand, disabilities aren’t always immediately apparent, and it’s sometimes not easy to tell the jerks from the people who really need the space. I would never want to question someone’s disability or make them feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, not commenting out of sensitivity would permit people to illegally use these spots without any consequences. Do we have a social responsibility to say something, or should we just keep our mouths shut?

A: If they have a handicapped placard or license plate, I think you should leave well enough alone. This is anecdotal, of course, but I’ve heard many more stories of people with invisible disabilities or heart conditions being berated by interfering strangers than I have of actual spot-stealers being driven away by vigilant citizens. I’m interested if anyone has actually, successfully convinced an able-bodied person who illegally parked in a handicapped parking space to move their car—can anyone recommend the practice? Has this ever worked?

Q. Re: Depression and work performance: I think your advice may be premature. If no other sick days were taken, four days in a year would be considered minimal. “Not feeling well,” is all the reason I give for an isolated day.

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A: I assumed the LW was counting from the beginning of 2016, in which case four days in two months might be a sign that things aren’t going well. However, if they meant four days in the last calendar year, that’s a different story.

Q. Out of sync: I married my wife a year ago after three years of dating. We met at college and bonded from escaping Southern religious insanity alive. (I knew I was gay when I was 9 and I ended up on the streets at 16 when my parents found out.) Now my wife has come out as trans. I want to be supportive, but I feel lied to. He is taking hormones and has gotten rid of all the lovely clothes we bought together, and my desire has dried up. All our savings (house, kids, travel) are going to the transition, and I swing from hating myself to being angry with him. I can’t talk to anyone in our social circle, since everyone is trying to be as supportive as they can. I hate myself for being like my parents, but I can’t stop these feelings. What do I do?

A: I don’t think you’re being like your parents at all. You can support your partner’s transition while also acknowledging that you are exclusively attracted to women. If you’re not seeing a counselor already, I think you should start. You need to be able to express your resentment and sense of loss in a way that doesn’t damage your partner. Supporting him does not mean you have to stay in a romantic relationship you don’t want. You want to be with women, and he is a man. This is probably an insurmountable circumstance, and you can mourn the loss of your marriage without making him feel like there’s something wrong with him for coming out. There’s also nothing wrong with you. This is a complicated situation, and I wish you all the best as you figure out how to separate amicably.

Q. Public diaper changing: The other day at a restaurant, a couple changed a baby’s diaper (No. 2) on the table beside me. I was horrified. I am all about public breast-feeding, and I’m OK with kids and babies at my favorite brunch places, and I don’t have a problem with my friends changing their kids in any room of my own house. But I do draw the line at this. I am paying for dinner, and there is fecal matter about 1½ feet away. I am from a family-friendly city. Almost all bathrooms have changing facilities for both moms and dads. I hate urban yupsters who protest when children start coming to their favorite neighborhood spots, but I find this really gross. Is it wrong to complain to management in these situations?

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A: You are being enormously reasonable. Diapers do not belong on the same table as food. Complain with a right goodwill. (I’m actually a little horrified that apparently no one else in the restaurant said anything.)

Q. Massage envy: I am really good at giving massages and often get asked to do friends’ and family members’ backs, and my boyfriend loves it too. Except every time I ask him to reciprocate, it is 15 minutes of limp wrist and his excuses of how he is tired and he isn’t good at it. I can and do give him hourlong massages, and since his job involves physical labor, he does need it, but so do I in the end! I try to give him pointers and it never sticks and I am left sore and frustrated. I am on my feet all day too. Is it OK to just do it once in a while and to tell him to go see a professional the rest of the time?

A: Yes.