The workplace: where mental illness stigma thrives

By Sam Ryan

The workplace is a breeding ground for mental illness stigma: where increasing pressure creates and exacerbates stress, and increasing uncertainty encourages a culture of silence.

For many of us work is our second home, so it is concerning that so many Australians, upon entering the workplace, conceal this part of our identity, like so much cheap stationary tucked away as we walk out.

According to the Mental Health Council of Australia, 69 per cent of people are uncomfortable disclosing a mental illness to an employer and 35 per cent ruled out the possibility completely. A study by SANE Australia found that while Australians are just as likely as Europeans to disclose mental illness to those close to us, we are twice as likely not to tell our bosses. Forty per cent of those taking sick leave due to depression hid the fact from their boss, with almost half fearing risks to their employment.

Lower job protection may be a factor, but employers can’t really afford to broadly discriminate based on mental health even if they want to – according to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), nearly half of Australians aged 16-85 will experience mental illness during their life.

From personal experience I know disclosure can be more trouble than it is worth, even misrepresentative.

In 2006 when I was offered a role with a local government department, I was two years into treatment for Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I’d interned there the year before and they’d been impressed enough to find me a permanent role, subject to passing a routine medical. Which I nailed – sharp eyesight, well-tuned hearing, solid ability to sit for long periods – until I threw it all into doubt with the mention of anxiety.

My starting date was pushed back a week, and then another, as a doctor with no detailed knowledge of my condition, treatment, or capability in the workplace, weighed up whether I was fit to take a job I’d already been offered. My new manager never received details, so I hid embarrassment and feigned naivety as we speculated on what the hold up could be.

In certain circumstances, stigma causes us to present a somewhat false version of ourselves, in order to counteract potentially false and unfair perceptions. Mental illness is so personal and variable that combatting ill-informed perceptions at a personal level often seems not only difficult, but risky. Sadly, this experience reinforced the idea that I could not properly explain myself to most people, and should stay silent.

Where exactly the cycle of ignorance driving silence and silence perpetuating ignorance can be broken is difficult to pinpoint, but we can’t expect people to simply open up when more than 80 per cent of Australians believe conditions such as schizophrenia, depression, bipolar and anxiety diminish the ability to undertake paid work.

Though our experience does not define us, it does shape us, and often in significant and positive ways.

No doubt mental illness affects who we are as employees. There were many days at that government job when I regularly sought refuge in a toilet cubicle – the only place that offered the isolation and peace to sufficiently collect and correct my thoughts. Sadly, such behaviour isn’t seen as normal and can raise any number of suspicions. But there were never a question raised about either my habits or my productivity.

Distractions that diminish performance are ubiquitous in the workplace from socialising (in person and online) to sleep deprivation and even coffee. The difference with mental health is that employers are obliged to minimise practices, actions or incidents that might contribute to mental illness. And doing so can reap great benefits for business as well as employees.

As noted by the AHRC, work-related stress is emerging as a leading contributor to occupational disease and injury. Each year, 3.2 days per worker are lost through workplace stress and Australian businesses lose more than $5.6 billion by failing to provide appropriate support

The productivity return on investment of providing this support is close to 500 per cent, through increased output and reduced leave. Yet nearly half of Australians feel their workplace is mentally unhealthy. Extraordinarily, similar numbers in senior management don’t believe mental illness affects any of their workers.

That a disproportionately large number of people affected by mental illness are unemployed and/or live in poverty, making it all the more crucial to create workplace environments that are welcoming, supportive and promote mental health. For the most part, mental illness should not be a barrier to work; indeed work often plays an important role in managing mental health issues, providing a sense of purpose and belonging, socialisation, structure and distraction.

What is often overlooked is that many of us fortunate enough to come through mental illness have a focus on developing strong mental health to better manage everyday stresses – something that may actually be worth promoting to prospective employers. Though our experience does not define us, it does shape us, and often in significant and positive ways.

In 2011 several colleagues at that government job saw me on a television program talking about my OCD. Those who mentioned it were wonderfully understanding; five years working together helps. A couple more quietly opened up about their own private struggles – a sharing that can be incredibly powerful to both people. Everything remained the same at work, except the huge weight that was lifted from my shoulders.

I didn’t have to tell anyone at work directly though and still never have, even if I’m quite open with friends and online.

By keeping these struggles to ourselves we trade mental discomfort for a little security. And once things improve, speaking up and staying silent are both easier.

In the workplace – more so than society in general – where stress and pressure are accepted and expected, mental illness continues to lurk quietly and relatively freely. By breaking this silence, perhaps this can be the space where we really take stigma apart.