Most people don’t hesitate to tell their boss they need time off for a medical appointment, but when that appointment is for therapy, they often get a lot more reluctant. And understandably so. Frustratingly, even as therapy is becoming more and more openly embraced in American culture, mental health issues can still carry a stigma at work, and people are often unsure how much they need to share and how much would be TMI. Plus, because therapy is often weekly, there’s added pressure to say more than just “I have a doctor’s appointment.”
But getting the time you need to get yourself to a therapist, whether virtually or in person, isn’t impossible. Here’s some advice on how to go about it.
How do I ask for time off to go to therapy?
The same way you’d ask for the time for any other recurring medical appointment. You don’t need to explain that it’s for therapy, just like you wouldn’t need to specify that an ongoing medical appointment was for Crohn’s or for chemo. Say something like this: “I have a recurring weekly medical appointment for the next few months (or the foreseeable future, or whatever seems realistic). I’ve scheduled it for as late in the day as I can, but I’ll need to leave at 4 each Tuesday to make it there. Would it work for me to come in early on Tuesdays so it doesn’t interfere with my work?”
Your boss may ask what’s going on. She could just be nosy, but she might also be asking out of genuine concern. In any case, you’re not obligated to share details if you don’t want to. You simply can say, “I’ll be OK—it’s just something I need to get taken care of.”
If I have a standing weekly appointment, won’t everyone assume it’s for therapy?
Eh, maybe. There are a bunch of other possibilities—physical therapy, allergy shots, monitoring of a chronic condition, etc. But even if people do assume it’s therapy, there’s no shame in that! They’re not entitled to know—just like they’re not entitled to know the details of other medical issues—but it shouldn’t be a big deal if people assume it.
What if I’d rather disclose it? Is there anything wrong with sharing with my boss or co-workers that I’m in therapy?
That’s up to you! Sometimes it can be easier to be open—and frankly, if you’re in a senior role, there can be benefits to showing other staff members that the company supports people in taking care of their mental health.
But you need to know your own workplace, manager, and colleagues. People can be weird about mental health in a way they’re not about physical health. There’s also a risk that your manager will consider therapy less important than other medical needs and might be less accommodating of your appointments, especially as time goes on (for example, asking if you really have to leave early today, since a deadline is looming, when she wouldn’t do that if your appointment were with, say, a gastroenterologist).
Is there any legal protection for me if I let my boss know I’m in therapy and then suffer discrimination as a result?
The Americans With Disabilities Act makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against you—including firing you or denying you professional advancement—simply because you have a mental health condition. To decide you were somehow unfit for your job because of your mental health, your employer would need to have objective evidence that you’re unable to perform the essential functions of your position, even with reasonable accommodations (more on those below).
Keep in mind, though, that not everyone is covered under the ADA. The law only covers employers with 15 or more employees, and your condition needs to “substantially limit one or more major life activities,” which include interacting with others, communicating, eating, sleeping, caring for yourself, and regulating your thoughts. (While the ADA doesn’t list specific conditions that it covers, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other common mental health disorders often do fall under its protection.) The ADA also protects you if you are perceived as having such an impairment, whether or not you actually do.
Also, some states have laws that provide additional protections.
What if my boss resists giving me time off for therapy appointments?
If your condition is protected by the ADA, the law requires your employer to work with you to find reasonable accommodations to help you do your job. That can include things like altering your work schedule or providing adaptive technology. In the case of therapy, this most commonly would mean allowing you to schedule work around your therapy appointments.
If your boss pushes back on your request, talk with your HR department. Explain that you need time off for a standing medical appointment and that your boss wasn’t receptive, and ask how to proceed. HR should be trained in disability law in a way that individual managers often aren’t and should let you know what you should do. If you ask for a formal accommodation under the ADA, they might ask you to put the request in writing or to submit a letter from your doctor to document that you have a health condition that requires an accommodation. You and your doctor should not need to disclose your specific diagnosis in doing this.