Mental Illness on the Job: Coping With “the Workplace’s Dirty Little Secret”

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Feb 5, 2015

An article on PsyBlog has confirmed the sad truth: The stigma of mental illness is alive and well in the workplace.

According to a study published in The International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (IJOEM), one-third of employees would hide a mental illness from their manager for fear of damaging their careers. Participants cited losing credibility, being rejected, and becoming the object of gossip as top worries.

What’s more, 64.2 percent of employees indicated they’d be concerned about how work would be affected if a co-worker had a mental illness. Of those employees, most (42.7 percent) said their concerns would focus on safety.

A problem no one really wants to talk about

A recent article on characterized mental illness as “ … the workplace’s dirty little secret. Employees want to hide it and employers don’t want to hear about it.”

According to Dr. Carolyn Dewa, who conducted the study, “between 8 percent and 10 percent of the working population experiences a major depressive episode during a 30-day period.” Dr. Dewa also points out that each year 3 percent of workers take disability leave related to mental health. And experts tell us that mental health conditions cost employers between $80 and $100 billion in lost productivity each year.

A big problem, indeed.

The irony, of course, is that employees struggling with mental health issues need support, and keeping mum at work could potentially interfere with access to resources and recovery.

But, it’s also ironic, because workplace stress and other conditions at work can aggravate and/or lead to mental distress, which no one then wants to talk about.

I know a little about that.

My story

I’ve mentioned more than once that I’ve been a target of workplace bullying, and I’ve been forthright with that assertion because I want other targets to know they aren’t alone and there is hope.

In my case, the bullying got so bad I finally took a medical leave of absence, but it wasn’t a decision I came to lightly. In fact, I resisted every inch of the way — for all the reasons noted in Dr. Dewa’s study — and because I felt that going for help was proof I was weak and the bullies were winning.

Well, to make a long story short, things got so out of hand I woke up one day and realized I was barely functioning and exhibiting all the signs of depression. I also came to the realization that my family simply did not deserve to keep getting the short end of the stick because of my employer’s failures.

So I went to see my doctor, and frankly, it was one of the best decisions of my life — but also the beginning of the end for me at that job.

I’d made my decision, and I owned it. More than that, I made my employer own it. I took every opportunity available to remind the powers that be what their negligence had cost them and me. And there’s strength in that. And freedom. There should be no shame in it.

We’re in this together

But that’s my story. Other people have other stories — stories that involve histories of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or clinical depression that’s beyond situational.

And so my point here is not to call out one horrible employer. Far from it.

  • My point is: mental health is important.
  • My point is: getting help when we need help is vital — the gossip hounds be damned.
  • My point is: whether employers like it or not, we’re in this together.

Moving forward

As with so many things, education and training are key. Dr. Dewa writes:

These study results … indicate that together, two of the most important factors related to the willingness to disclose are supportive managers and organizational policies and practices… They also highlight the need for training and supports to assist supervisors by building their confidence and abilities to manage workers with mental health problems … This also underscores the need for organization policies and practices that pro-vide managers with resources that enables them to provide accommodations without creating burdensome additional work for co-workers.”

In that Workforce article I mentioned earlier, Patrick Kennedy, a leading sponsor of the Mental Health Parity Act of 2008, is quoted as saying:

A lot of companies and HR folks are going through the same set of challenges, but in isolation. It would behoove companies to band together and begin to share best practices, like what kinds of benefits have the best evidence — and outcomes — based research behind them.”

Removing the workplace barriers

Education, training, raised awareness, and a willingness to step out of our own comfort zones would all go a long way toward removing the workplace barriers that keep people from seeking assistance when they need it the most.

And let’s face it. Sweeping this stuff under the rug isn’t making it go away (not that it ever does).

I’m certain we can do better.

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