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Advocating for Myself After Being Discriminated at Work for My Mental Illness

Organizations often claim to prioritize employee wellness; in fact, the practice is very du jour to create mental health awareness campaigns and “wellness weeks” organization-wide. What is ironic and sad is how few organizations truly live up to their promise of supporting employee well-being and fostering positive mental health. In my experience, this is especially pronounced at nonprofit organizations, many of which grind their employees to dust while professing all the positive differences made in the lives of their stakeholders. As if the stakeholders’ needs outstrip employee needs for mental wellness and emotional safety. The hypocrisy is brazen. In my career, I have been the victim of organizational two-facedness, and it became one of the most tumultuous experiences of my life.

Full disclosure: I live with mental illness. And though talking openly about my diagnosis is still heavily stigmatized in society, mental illness is something millions of people deal with. Undoubtedly, nearly every employer in the US employs at least one employee with mental illness. Some organizations even attract this population because of their mission or their work. Employees with these invisible illnesses walk the halls of almost every office building and occupy space at most nonprofit organizations, too.

I am among this group. At the same time, I am a mission-driven professional, and I have pledged my career to date to the support and empowerment of vulnerable populations — at-risk youth, first-generation college students, people with autism and other developmental disabilities and people with mental health conditions. I long to make people’s lives better, and I put that at the center of my professional praxis. Sadly, this leaves me very open to overworking, to grinding so hard for so long, I burn out.

When I started my time with one organization, I was optimistic and driven. I believed I was going to do magnificent work on behalf of a noble cause. Shortly, though, the mood began to shift. When my supervisor tutted at my midday therapist appointment, I could sense trouble in the water. Then came the microaggressions around my “personality” making people uncomfortable. Then came the micromanagement at levels never before experienced at any point in my career; my supervisor actually asked to be carbon copied on every email I sent.

Pretty soon, I was so mentally distraught, I had severe suicidal ideation. Human resources (HR) caught wind of my despondency, and instead of offering support or intervention, I was immediately placed on administrative leave until my condition could be “evaluated” by the organization’s employee assistance program (EAP). Ironically, when I contacted their EAP team, I was dismissed from their services because I had a private therapist, and it would be “improper” for an EAP therapist to interfere. So, I was left in limbo. So much for prioritizing my wellness!

Human resources communicated with me very little during my weeks of leave. But they did provide a form on which I could request reasonable accommodations. With the help of my healthcare team, I devised some accommodations that would ease my workplace burdens. Among these was the request for flexibility of time to work outside of core hours. Another request involved leniency around my use of leave so I could accommodate my varying moods more proactively.

When I finally did return to work, all of my requested accommodations were denied because they presented an undue burden. The organization determined I wanted to “check out at any time” which was a vast exaggeration. I was even told my position required me to be available to respond to callers during core business hours. I, however, was not a phone operator; my job did not involve interacting with callers, ever. In essence, this accommodation request was denied because of a false understanding of my actual job.

But that did not seem to phase HR. I was simply expected to return to “business as usual.” And, predictably, the microaggressions, the micromanagement and the blatant disregard for my mental health condition proceeded as if nothing had occurred. I realized HR was not my friend, their sole purpose was to protect the organization.

Earnestly believing the denial of my requested accommodations was a violation of my rights and a blatant example of discrimination, and on the advice of an attorney, I filed an inquiry with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Within a short span of days, my mental health deteriorated further, and I found myself, once again, at the precipice. I took three days off to attempt to re-calibrate, and I filed a claim for short-term disability with my employer’s insurance company. Upon returning to work, I was immediately contacted by HR and a meeting was scheduled for midday. By noon of that day, I was given my pink slip. The reason provided: “disrespectful behavior,” a completely subjective, unmeasurable offense which was totally untrue.

Honestly, after the shock of having been fired wore off, I breathed a sigh of relief to finally be free of that place. Then, steeled by righteous indignation, I immediately filed a second inquiry with the EEOC, this time for retaliation. My employer was officially charged by the EEOC for both discrimination and retaliation within just a few weeks of my termination.

Shortly thereafter, I faced the HR officer and the organization’s counsel (from a white-shoe law firm, no less) in mediation where, after several hours of back-and-forth negotiation, they offered to settle for an inadequate sum that represented a mere 0.0006% of their total annual budget. Though I certainly could have gotten more had I declined their settlement and proceeded to sue, I could not stomach the idea of letting this shameful organization and these insouciant people occupy space in my mind for another two or three years as my case was litigated. I took their money in an attempt to discard them, like trash, from my brain.

One of the mediation agreements I had to sign stated the settlement was not an admission of guilt, but come on! What kind of nonprofit organization would shell out thousands for a high-powered attorney and additional thousands for a settlement? Certainly not an innocent organization.

Confidentiality and non-disparagement agreements bar me from getting too specific, so my former employer and the full amount of their blood money bribe will remain unstated. However, I feel compelled to share this story. Had I taken this organization to court, had their blatant harmful acts been exposed under the glaring lights of public scrutiny and had their outrageous hypocrisy become part of the public record, there is little chance they could maintain their reputation and sustain their work.

Some very bad people still work on behalf of this so-called “service organization,” bad people who are willing to discriminate against their colleagues with mental illness and in my case, literally drive them to thoughts of suicide. And they do it with audacity, without batting an eyelid.

Mine is a single story. There are examples of discrimination against employees with mental illness happening all too frequently. To my peers who are currently experiencing microaggressions from their supervisors, who are being made to feel guilty for daytime therapy and psychiatric appointments, I feel you and I see you. It is beyond time for business culture to adjust and accommodate us! It is beyond time for callous micromanagers to be called out for their fear-driven practices and their insecurity. And it is beyond time for HR departments to actually value and protect employee rights instead of simply protecting the “firm.”

At the top of this essay, I called myself a victim, but in reality, I am the conqueror, a David against a Goliath. I will not be shamed or stigmatized for my condition. I will speak truth to power and continue serving as the voice for my peers and for other vulnerable populations. Though this battle ended behind closed doors, there is still much to fight for. I, for one, am no longer afraid to fight.

Unsplash image by Luis Villasmil

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