I am in treatment (weekly therapy and a drug regimen) for clinical depression and a panic disorder. They are, for the most part, very well managed. However, even the most well managed mental illness has flare-ups, during which I find it difficult to get out of bed, am plagued with suicidal thoughts or am so panicked that I need to take medication to calm my heart rate. When these symptoms are occurring, the idea of being able to work is laughable.
These symptoms are not readily understood by my high-powered industry colleagues and bosses. There is a general feeling that “we all get anxious and sad; we buck up and push through.” Personal days and sick days are discouraged, and there are few light days. Moreover, although my co-workers are vaguely aware that I have a condition that requires weekly therapy, the existence of flare-ups like this carries, I feel, a heavy stigma that I am not “up to” our fast-paced job. This is not the case; I am an extremely productive and dedicated worker, and I love my job. These flare-ups happen less than once a month, and I am fastidious about ensuring that my work is covered appropriately when I am out.
My work is in law, with regular can’t-miss meetings with clients, such that a “taking a sick day” message to a boss will generally be met with: “Can you come in for this meeting/court date or call in to this or that?”; “Have you tried DayQuil?” etc. On days when I am so preoccupied with my depression symptoms that I cannot go in, I cannot meaningfully participate in “just one thing”; indeed, trying to do so often makes it more difficult for me to recover. I have found that the easiest way to avoid these requests is to lie and explain that I am ill with a particularly nasty symptom, such as a high fever, strep throat or food poisoning. This normally halts questioning, as those conditions are deemed “serious enough” to warrant a day off. Given the stigma associated with mental health issues, is it ethical for me to lie about the specifics of my symptoms to my boss, or is this similar to calling in a “sick day” when in fact you’re taking a personal day, an act I would consider unethical?
Let’s assume that, over all, your firm has reason to agree that you are, as you say, “an extremely productive and dedicated worker.” Your inclination to be more open about your illness is a good one: When more people like you choose to be open about their struggles, understanding will increase, and the stigma you mention will be reduced. And that’s likely to help people in your situation work productively.
The decision you make will depend on how supportive you think your boss will be, what the culture of your workplace is and how much your contributions are valued. You’ll also want to explain the reality of the disorder — that it’s not a matter of “bucking up and pushing through.” Your employers can accommodate your needs only if you inform them properly of your disability. This would both make your life easier and allow them to plan better; one of the many bad consequences of prejudice is that these win-win outcomes aren’t achieved.
But suppose you decide that your firm would penalize you for being honest and that you can get away with inventing physical illnesses to cover your needs. Would the fact that your employers would respond badly to your being honest justify your continued lying? It would: In general, it’s permissible to mislead people who will do you serious and unwarranted wrong if you tell the truth.
Because you work in the law, you’ll know that the Americans With Disabilities Act requires employers (with 15 or more workers) to make “reasonable accommodations” for conditions that are legally considered disabilities. So if candor proved damaging to your conditions of employment, you might have a remedy. Whether an illness, like depression, is disabling depends, according to the law, on whether it “substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Of course, the law says, as you’d expect, that work is a major life activity. And it was amended in 2008 to define disabilities in a way that explicitly includes conditions like yours that are only episodically disabling, so your clinical depression should meet the test. But in the end, it would be for lawyers to advise you on that question.
A final paradox: If you do go on lying to your employers, they will be justified in penalizing you if they find out. They’re unlikely to be impressed by the argument that you were convinced that they would have behaved badly if you had told them. So I would urge you to consider the harder path of telling the truth. After all, if you’re a terrific worker, they ought to know you’re worth a good deal to them.