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Workplace Communication Tips for People Living with Mental Illness

by Dave Carl, job coach, Shop CI, Washington State

Work Tips

A theme that came up in our Identity Survey—open Jan. 26-Feb. 15, 2011—was the desire to improve communication with others, particularly in a work setting. Dave Carl is a social worker and writer who helps people living with disabilities learn job skills and enter the workforce for what is often the first time.

My primary focus as a social worker is working with individuals living with disabilities teaching a variety of independent living skills including employment. Through my career I have seen the progress of people living with disabilities in the workforce who at first had very low self confidence and communication skills. Many knew what they wanted but did not know how to ask for it or did not have the courage to ask for it.

It is important for employers and co-workers to understand that someone with a disability can be just as capable in the workforce as anyone else, but this understanding must begin with the individual living with the disability. I have a very obvious disability because I use a wheelchair, but I also have a few hidden disabilities as well, including learning disabilities. In my experience as a social worker and job coach, people living with hidden conditions like a mental illness and who are entering the workforce after some time away may need to work on their self-confidence, without which they may hang back from sharing with others. On a personal level, I had a hard time talking about one of my challenges—severe epilepsy which at one time affected my ability to concentrate. Through time I have learned how to work with my hidden disabilities so I can ask for appropriate job accommodations, while at the same time helping my clients find the accommodations they needed in order to be effective workers.

Employment is not something that is easy for everyone but you.

It is very common for everyone—whether you are an individual with a disability or not—to feel uncertain about themselves and not very confident in the workplace. This feeling of uncertainty may linger, making someone with a few extra challenges have a hard time trusting others or believing that they are wanted. One thing it is important to realize is that you went through an interview just like the others and obviously there are qualities that your employer saw in you just like they saw in your coworkers. People whose life experience has been very difficult often hear—and remember—negative feedback much more than positive feedback, which they may not notice at all. Learn to challenge these feelings of self-doubt by paying attention to positive communication or remembering you were hired for a reason.

Good work communication requires both talking and listening—most people have to work on at least one.

If you are getting a job for the first time, understand that good work communication is hard work for even the most experienced member of the workforce. It requires speaking clearly as well as listening and processing information. Some people are good listeners may be unable to ask for help when needed. or find that their talents are overlooked. Employees with room to grow in the opposite area may make mistakes because they didn’t listen closely to all the instructions.

Like many of the issues that affect workers living with disabilities, communication differences are often minimized when employees talk to someone—a supervisor, a human resources worker— about their specific needs. Being upfront about something and providing a solution shows that you are aware of an issue and willing to improve. It can also reduce some of the worry or shame you may feel about something that is not a big deal. Some examples are: “I get a little nervous speaking in front of people—can I try out my presentation in front of someone first?” or “I heard your instructions, but would you mind writing them down and e-mailing them to me—I’m a visual learner.”

You don’t come to work to make friends, but you can’t be an effective worker without allies.

One of the first things I reinforce to new and returning workers is good personal boundaries. People who tend to be shy or anxious may be worried about the uncertainty of a new job setting—meeting all those new people after spending most of their time within a small support network may feel like a big stretch. For others, I need to teach the difference between the kind of friendliness expected between coworkers and the relaxed friendliness they might share with family and friends. It takes some finesse to know which coworker expects nothing more than a friendly good morning and which people are open to a short chat about an appropriate topic. There’s nothing wrong with asking someone—a coworker you trust, a friend or family member—for feedback on an interaction you weren’t sure about. Remember that every workplace has different expectations, so you aren’t the only one that has to learn the ropes.

Learn from setbacks.

Frustration is another area that will affect you from time to time, just like any worker. For someone who has low self-esteem or feels unsure on the job, one mistake can seem symbolic of a larger fear. I tell people that letting, “I didn’t do this one thing right,” turn into “I can’t do anything right,” makes it that much harder for you to pick up and try again. Instead, work on correcting the situation and remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes—not just you. If you get frustrated with a coworker, it is important to talk to the person in a calm way without showing anger. Learn about the chain of command and find out who are the appropriate supervisors to contact when you have a particular type of problem you can’t handle yourself. Above all, taking a moment to de-escalate and get some perspective is always a better idea than reacting impulsively.

Know your rights.

I recommend to my clients that they tell employers about any job accommodations they might need once they are hired—not necessarily during the interview. This is another example of something you need to take the lead on—most employers are not likely to ask you.

What is Reasonable Accommodation According to the Americans With Disabilities Act?

Employers may be asked to make certain changes, including:

  • providing or modifying equipment or devices;
  • job restructuring;
  • part-time or modified work schedules;
  • reassignment to a vacant position;
  • adjusting or modifying examinations, training materials or policies;
  • providing readers and interpreters; and
  • making the workplace readily accessible to and usable by people living with disabilities.

An employer is required to provide a reasonable accommodation to a qualified employee with a disability unless the employer can show that the accommodation would require significant difficulty or expense.

Here are some tips to help people—even those who have been working for a long time— who may have a difficulty communicating with supervisors about accommodations.

  • It is reasonable for you to talk to you supervisor about your concerns. Ask for a meeting with him or her to talk about what you need in order to do your job to the best of your ability.
  • While you are within your rights to ask, remember that you are still dealing with your boss and that a pleasant request works better than a demand.
  • Your workplace is within its rights to ask for documentation such as doctors' notes confirming that you need what you are asking for, and that this is not discrimination.
  • Be confident when asking for what you need. Remember that you know yourself better than anyone and thus know what you need.

If you have any questions about your rights as an employee with a disability contact the agency below:

Employment Opportunity Commission
P.O. Box 7033
Lawrence, KS. 66044
(800) 669-4000 (Voice), (800) 669-6820 (TDD)

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