Disclosing mental illness in the workplace: should you tell?

by Dr Jocelyn Lowinger

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.

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.’

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.

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.’

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.

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?

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.

Remember that once you have disclosed a mental health condition you are protected by anti-discrimination law.

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.

A longer version of this article first appeared at abc.net.au