What are the rules surrounding disclosure of mental health to employers? Is it a good idea to tell your employers about your mental health? In this post, REACT Supporter and researcher Lizzi explores this sometimes difficult issue.

Problems with mental health are very common, with one in four people experiencing poor mental health at some point in their lives. However, there's still a stigma surrounding mental health and many people worry about disclosing mental health problems to potential or current employers.

As a REACT Supporter, working on an online trial for relatives with psychosis or bipolar, I recently had a conversation about disclosing mental illness to employers. The conversation was in the context of applying for jobs and this got me thinking about what a difficult subject it is.

Employment law and bipolar

There are stringent guidelines as to when an employer can ask you about your health. Under the 2010 Equality Act, employers are banned asking about health and disability unless and until an offer of a job has been made. This includes previous sick leave. There are exceptions, for example if a condition would make you unable to do the job with reasonable adjustments (e.g. a pilot can't be colour blind) or if they need to ask if you can take part in an assessment process (e.g. asking if you can climb a scaffold during an assessment to see if you can do a job safely).

Once employed, an employer cannot ask for a medical report from your doctor without your consent and you can ask to see the report before it's sent to an employer. This is a helpful guide about what employers can and can't ask.

Most guidance is couched in terms of disability and this applies to mental health too. The government defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that has a 'substantial' and 'long term' negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities. 'Substantial' is more than minor or trivial and 'long term' means 12 months or more.

Disability should not form the basis for withdrawing an offer of employment – that would be direct discrimination. If you tell your employer that you have a disability, they are required to make reasonable adjustments to allow you to do the job. More information can be found here.

Medication and safety

When do you have to tell your employer about your medication? When applying for jobs, this is something you would have to decide. Employers can only ask during recruitment if this is something that would directly affect your ability to do the job, even if reasonable adjustments were made.

It's reasonable for employers to want to know about medication that might affect someone's ability to be safe in the workplace, for example if a HGV driver uses a medicine that makes them drowsy. Indeed, all employers have a duty to keep themselves and others safe at work. You can disclose to your employer in a confidential way and you can request that this information is restricted to only those who need to know.

Should I bring it up at interview?

ACAS says, "Employees are under no obligation to disclose a mental health condition to their employer. However, if the employee's condition could affect their ability to do their job, they might want to consider the benefits of doing so as an employer can only provide support and/or make reasonable adjustments if they are aware of the condition. The employee could request a private meeting with their manager to discuss the condition, how it relates to their work, and what help the employer can provide to support the employee in their role."

Guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission says, "If you voluntarily disclose information about your health or disability before the employer has made any job offer, the employer should still not get involved in a conversation with you which is outside the exceptions [to questions about health as allowed by the Equality Act]."

Essentially, it's up to you to decide. Mental health discrimination does exist although it can't be assumed that this will happen. Some people decide to be straight up about it. Some people may refer to it in more general terms ("I've had a few mental health problems but I'm doing really well now") and some people decide not to say anything. You might even have picked up a few relevant skills as part of your recovery journey, which you can use in your application or interviews.

The Relatives Education and Coping Toolkit (REACT) study is an exciting project that aims to evaluate the effectiveness of an online toolkit for supporting relatives or close friends of people with bipolar or psychosis. 

If you'd like to know more, visit the REACT website.

You can also follow REACT on Facebook and Twitter.

For more information and support about managing bipolar in the workplace, take a look at Bipolar UK's Employment Support service.