The Ethicist: Must I Tell My Boss I’m Absent Because of Mental Illness?

March 25, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Must I Tell My Boss I’m Absent Because of Mental Illness?

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? Name Withheld

My response: You ask what’s ethical. Since everyone has different values, you’ll just get a label that not everyone agrees on. I suggest you want not a label but a practical plan to resolve your situation as best you can by your values and the values of others affected as best you can tell using empathy and projecting possible outcomes. There is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

Focusing on labeling and abstract philosophical questions kept you from asking for advice, which I expected would have helped you more. Labeling something doesn’t change your situation. You probably want to resolve it more than label it. I suggest that more than a New York Times columnist labeling something for you, you’d benefit from developing the social and emotional skills to resolve the situation and improve your emotional well-being. You’ll lose the excuse to say, “But the New York Times told me to” but gain the ability to resolve these inevitable parts of life without needing others’ help. You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn from them. Experience is the best way to learn these things, I’ve found, as have millions of others. I recommend accepting the missteps you’ll make, looking at them as learning experiences, and using them to learn and grow.

Your question is legal/medical/other professional service. Talking to a professional will answer your questions more effectively than a newspaper columnist.

The New York Times response:

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.


My husband and I live overseas in a country where English classes are very popular. There are several language schools in our area that provide this service. Two years ago, I took a part-time job as an English teacher but recently quit because of frustrations with the curriculum. My students asked me to continue meeting with them and helping them with English. I said yes.

The students offered to pay me, but I refused for a few reasons: It’s only about 10 hours per week, I don’t need the money and I don’t want to go through the trouble of registering as an independent contractor.

The school I worked for is furious and claims that I “stole” their students, about 20. The school has a constant turnover of students, so I’m surprised that losing students is something they would bother to get upset about. Honestly, I do not see any ethical issues with what I am doing, and it never occurred to me that others would. What do you think? Name Withheld

My response: You wonder what’s ethical, surprised at others’ perspectives. Since everyone has different values, you’re talking about a label that not everyone agrees on. I suggest you want not a label but a practical plan to resolve your situation as best you can by your values and the values of others affected as best you can tell using empathy and projecting possible outcomes.

You sound like you want to lead people—specifically not to view you as having stolen their students.

You also sound like you could stand to improve your leadership skills. Nearly every resource I’ve seen on leadership is leadership appreciation—that is, books on principles and such that help you appreciate others’ leadership but not to lead. To learn to lead you have to practice, starting with basics—probably similar to how you teach your students to learn language.

To expand on how to lead people, I recommend my book, Leadership Step by Step, which gives you exercises to practice the skills of leadership, not just to appreciate others’ practice. You have to do the work of the exercises, not just passively read it, but what expressive or performance-based practice can you learn without work?

I’m not just plugging my book. I wrote it because nothing existed to give you experience and skills, not just appreciation.

Unit 4 covers what you want, though I’d start at the beginning and do the exercises in order.

The New York Times response:

I see why your former employers are upset; you’ve cost them a little business. But you haven’t wronged them. You’ve simply given a few students higher-quality instruction than the school generally provides and done so for nothing. Even if there had been an implicit noncompete clause in your contract of employment, you wouldn’t have violated it, because you haven’t entered into business competition with the school. Furthermore, you didn’t “steal” these students. They solicited your help. That you agreed to provide it was a kind and generous act. That’s especially true if they were students who would have been badly served by being taught with the methods to which you objected. You weren’t just helping them; you were rescuing them. Your former employers are the ones who need to be schooled.

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