First published by ABC Health & Wellbeing 11/08/2014

While there’s less stigma around mental illness than there used to be, many people remain unsure about whether to share information about their mental health at work.

Despite national campaigns to improve mental health at work, stigma is a still a problem for people who are working and also have a mental illness. In particular, many are conflicted over whether they should disclose their condition or not.

Figures suggest almost half of Australians with a mental health condition are withholding this information from their employers because they are worried it would put their job at risk.

However, experts say there can be benefits to speaking up about a mental health condition at work.

Catherine* is a university lecturer and has had depression and anxiety for more than 20 years.

“I have always told my managers about my depression at a point when they actually needed to know what was going on for me.”

“I’ve selected very carefully the right people to tell, people who would understand. It’s been very much a ‘needs to know’ basis. But I have never had a problem with someone who wasn’t entirely sympathetic. I’ve never been treated badly.”

In her experience, choosing to tell the right people can be helpful.

“There are benefits to having someone to problem solve with you regarding which aspect of work is causing you stress and help you put something in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she says.

Benefits of disclosing

Dr Caryl Barnes, consultant psychiatrist at the Black Dog Institute workplace programs and The Lawson Clinic, a specialist mood disorder clinic in Sydney says growing awareness about mental illness has lead to significant changes.

“There is change in public understanding of mental illness which has resulted in increased numbers of people being proactive in management of mental illness,” Barnes said.

“There is a growing understanding that personality style, environment and triggers all contribute.”

This is something Catherine has also noticed. As a university lecturer Catherine also needs to manage students who have a mental health condition. She says an increasing number of students are asking for special provisions for mental health conditions.

“People seem to be more upfront about mental illness and asking for what they need.”

Despite this positive shift, Barnes says stigma is a continuing problem in our workplaces and it stops many of us from disclosing our condition at work.

“Many people don’t seek help for mental illness. People would rather lose their job than seek help,” Barnes says.

Yet if you have a mental health condition work is often very important, Barnes says in addition to providing income work can also give you:

  • a sense of purpose and goals
  • increased social inclusion
  • a sense of belonging and involvement
  • structure and consistency to the day and week
  • distraction.

Also hiding a mental health condition can create additional stress and anxiety if you are already struggling and it can prevent you seeking help during an episode and after you go back to work.

Return to work case study

Veronica* had a history of bipolar disorder. She was in her early 30s and working as an HR manager when she had three deaths of family and close friends one after another. She stayed working despite growing inner turmoil until she started making mistakes. She felt so bad she disclosed her condition to her boss and tried to resign – but her boss wouldn’t let her.

Slowly when she was ready her boss invited her back to work on a graded work program over eight weeks.

When Veronica asked why he had done this he said Veronica was valued and loved by the team and had always done a great job. And now he wanted to support her. Veronica has stayed in the workforce for another 18 years.

Double-edged sword

Ingrid Ozols, a consumer advocate and managing director of MentalHealth@Work (a provider of workplace mental health education programs) says considering disclosing a mental health condition is a “double-edged sword”.

She says benefits of disclosing include better understanding and two-way communication.

“Working together can help people reach their goals and develop themselves personally and professionally. But it’s a toughie and we still have a lot of work to do,” she said.

“Stigma in the workplace is still a sensitive and complex issue. Caution and intuition is recommended as many organisations still have cultures that don’t address this well.”

She says people may be fearful to share their circumstances due to concerns about the impact on career opportunities. Common concerns include:

  • possible discrimination
  • rejection or not getting a job
  • “being managed out”
  • missing out on promotions or transfers
  • misunderstanding and judgmental attitudes
  • bullying
  • social avoidance by team members and co-workers

“Employers may not even venture down the path of giving an employee with a known mental illness a promotion unless they are well established and have a positive track record.”

This is mirrored in Catherine’s experience.

“When I’m well I’m a high flyer. My managers know I am good value. So taking some time off is not a problem. They know I’ll give back later at 150 per cent.”

But Catherine acknowledges not everyone is a high flyer. “I don’t know what their experience is.”

Tips for disclosing a mental health condition

There is no obligation to tell your employer about a mental health condition if it does not affect how well you do your job.

Ozols says if you do decide to be open about your mental health in the workplace, there are a number of aspects to consider.

  • Does this person need to know?
  • Do you have a good rapport with them?
  • How comfortable are you sharing your personal information with them?
  • Do you feel confident they will maintain your privacy and confidentiality?

She also says timing is important. Try to make an appointment with enough time for a lengthy conversation. Also make sure it is a good time for the person you are meeting with and they aren’t distracted by other concerns.

Barnes says, “Disclosing comes down to how comfortable you are and the skills you have to have those conversations”. However once a mental health condition is disclosed people can involve their doctor as a team member in developing a graded return to work plan.

She also said it’s important to remember that once you have disclosed a mental health condition you are protected by antidiscrimination law.

*Names changed to protect privacy

Reading articles on mental health issues may trigger deep feelings. If you need to talk to someone you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Click through for an extensive list of national and state-based counseling contacts.

by Dr Jocelyn Lowinger