Making it Work
Although I’m very open about having Bipolar Disorder and have come out publicly several times at work, I’ve never had to ask for accommodations to HR. I have come to realize that at times, I do need accommodations and I’m blessed that usually, what I need are smaller things that I can do on my own without including anyone else in my tweaks and twists.
But the other day, I was discussing my workload with my first level supervisor. As a college professor, I am required to carry a certain number of “units” each year and teach a certain number of classes to maintain my faculty status. As we are a very small private Christian university, I’ve never had the problem of not having enough units – rather, I have to be sure that I don’t overdo it and take on more than I can realistically handle.
My boss, on the other hand, is amazing with the workload she carries. Of course, she has no children living at home and she has a husband who loves to cook and is very domestic. I, on the other hand, have three live-at-home college-aged daughters and am a single mom. I’m also taking on more responsibility and spending more time with my aging parents.
But I am always taken aback somewhat when my boss gently reminds me that I am the kind of person who has to be careful with how much overload I carry – that is how many units I carry beyond the minimum requirement of 30. And although I’ve never formally requested any assistance, after my first year of taking on 10 units past my 30, it was very evident that that is not a healthy choice for me, or for the graduate students I teach. I became very depressed, my thinking was a bit disorganized and my teacher reviews confirmed it.
If you do need accommodations at work, and you have to go through Human Resources to get them, there are several things you can do to make the process easier on everyone. If you do make the request, however, and you work for a small company, be prepared for the information to leak out. Most of the people I’ve talked to and interviewed didn’t come out voluntarily, but were outed by a boss or coworker after selective disclosure.
Here are the few steps you need to take to make sure you get what you need at work.
1) Get documentation. Get a doctor or your clinician to write a brief note or letter that you are under care. No need to give specifics to your diagnosis. You can also specify that you are requesting these accommodations under Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
2) Be specific about what you need. Have your doctor or clinician specifically ask for what you need. If you need to come in an hour later and work and hour later because your medications make it difficult to rise in the morning, ask for flexibility in your work hours. If you need to have frequent breaks because you have difficulty attending in long seminars or meetings, say that you need the ability to stand or take a ten-minute break every hour. Whatever it is, you don’t necessarily need to say why, just be specific about how they can accommodate for you.
3) Remind them of HIPAA. In your letter state that you are requiring all personnel to uphold confidentiality per federal regulations and that you want to be included in all decisions regarding who to share with and what information needs to be shared.
4) Don’t feel guilty. When coworkers or colleagues wonder why you’re leaving early for an appointment or are doing something different than everyone else, don’t feel the need to share if you’re not ready. For me, it’s much easier and I work in a somewhat accepting environment, so I can just come out and say I’m having a lot of anxiety or what have you. Sometimes, I’ll blame it on a migraine, back pain or insomnia and that’s all people need to hear.
I still feel a little bad when my boss or coworkers remind me not to take on too much or volunteer for every opportunity. But I try and remember that they are reminding me out of concern for me. Don’t get me wrong, I carry my share of the workload, and I’m blessed that my schedule is mostly flexible – I often work fewer hours each day, but 6 or sometimes 7 days per week grading and preparing – so the work gets done and deadlines are met, just not on the same daily 8-5 schedule like most everyone else.
Whatever you decide to do, whether you disclose selectively or come out in a broader context, you need to prepare yourself for those who are rude and thoughtless and who will gossip. Because it will happen. Sometimes it’s better to be in control of the information flow and how it is disseminated rather than wait for the bomb to drop of someone letting something slip. It’s all about retaining your power about your life and your needs. Be proactive. Be powerful.