Should You Tell Your Boss About Your Mental Health Condition?
It can still be dangerous to disclose your condition at your job, so how can we change work culture to protect the mentally ill?
Illustration by Tiana Dunlop
This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
Most people I know with an ongoing mental health condition haven't told their employer about it. We'll send one another memes about panic attacks and joke about periods of psychosis, but there's no way we can be that casual in the workplace.
In a fair world, employers wouldn't judge you for having a condition, and anyone who has an illness would have access to some form of work—which often helps with self-esteem and managing an illness—if they wanted that. But we're far from this being a reality, particularly in an economy in which employers don't want to take perceived risks on people they deem as sick—or, even worse, unproductive.
"When I had a breakdown, my work wasn't particularly supportive at all," remembers Sarah Mitchell, a 30-year-old mom with bipolar disorder, who used to work in an office in London. "They said: 'Can you just work from home on this day? Can you come in for a half day?' It just wasn't conducive to getting better at all. When I returned to work, people were talking behind my back, openly emailing about me... people who I thought were friends there shunned me, basically, and that made me more ill."
This lack of understanding from both employers and employees meant she had to leave the job and focus on recovery. She has since decided to stay working freelance because it was easier than trying to find an employer that would work with her illness rather than be scared of it. "It's very difficult to explain that gap in your CV," she says. "I should be honest, but people aren't usually receptive when you go into an interview and tell them you have bipolar."
It's important to add that disclosing illness doesn't always—and shouldn't ever—end in misunderstanding or punishment; sometimes it can improve your working conditions immensely. Fraud investigator Paul, in his 20s, suffers from anxiety and depression, and described a nurturing, female-dominated environment where the older women in the office look out for him.
"They've made it very clear I can talk to them about how I'm doing," he says. "If I'm seeming a bit down or ill, they'll notice. That makes so much difference to whether I feel I can go in during a bad patch. I think it's just about being good, supportive people."
This is an ideal situation—and, promisingly, over the last few years more companies seem to have become more understanding of conditions like depression and anxiety. This is brilliant progression, but it's obvious why it's these illnesses that have been picked up upon: Not only are they the most common mental health conditions, they also fit within the idea of "curable" illnesses.
Sometimes depression and anxiety come in patches, or can just happen for a singular stretch of time. They are viewed as "normal" mental health illnesses that even extremely productive people (people who make other people money) can have. But many other conditions are still overlooked, or treated with concern rather than compassion.
Hannah, 26, works a full-time job in admin for a company in London. She discloses to her employers that she has "vague" problems with her mental health, but hasn't told them she has borderline personality disorder (BPD).
"If you're working a normal 9–5 job, people don't think there are people who are seriously mentally unwell in their midst," she says. "I've heard people make jokes and comments that I think they wouldn't make if they knew. I have self-harm scars, and if they see [the scars], they feel uncomfortable—and it's because they assume that if they're working with me, I must be 'normal' and not have anything 'wrong.'"
The reality is that some people with chronic and less common mental health problems—BDP, PTSD, or psychosis, for example—are too ill to work, and we need to make sure they are properly cared for. However, there are also many with these conditions who can work if they get the support they need. Hannah doesn't believe she is any less capable than someone with a clean bill of mental health—just that she's different. "When I'm low I can't get my work done, so I might have two days where I've hardly done anything, but sometimes I'm high and I get a whole week's work done in a day and a half," she says. "It kind of balances out in the end."
Thankfully, there are legal safeguards in place to protect the jobs of people with mental health issues. These protections are mainly down to the UK's Equality Act 2010, which states that your employer can't discriminate against you if you have a mental health disability. To qualify for a disability, your condition should have a long-term (at least 12 months) effect on your normal day-to-day activity.
On the positive side, this is legal and binding. It also means that employers must make "reasonable adjustments" to work practices and provide other aids and adaptations. However, what works on paper can play out very differently in practice. If you did feel you were unfairly treated, you'd have to call an employment tribunal, which costs a lot of money and can take a long time. In addition, depression and anxiety can come in patches and can be severe, but still last for a shorter period than 12 months, meaning you're technically not protected by the law.
It also puts the onus on the employee to disclose their condition to the employer, which is stressful and not always safe. A 2011 Mind survey found that one in five people people would not disclose their stress or mental health status to their employer for fear of being placed first in line for redundancy.
LISTEN: The VICE UK Podcast—Employers Still Don't Know How to Deal with Mental Health
Bethany Lamont, who runs mental health zine Doll Hospital, agrees that there is a fault in this current system. "First and foremost, someone with a mental health condition has to think about practical issues, such as being safe and happy and surviving in our day-to-day lives," she says. "You don't want disclosing your condition to affect your employment; you might not be in a position to rock the boat too much."
People on zero hours contracts, for instance, might not feel secure enough to talk to their employer about their mental health; they might need all the hours they can get, and worry that disclosing their condition might work against them. Young people, too, who have only just finished interning for free and are seen as disposable might not want to be defined by their illness at the very start of their career.
Rather than employees putting themselves in danger, employers should be making environments that are conducive to good mental health and well-being in the first place. Some workplaces are starting to recognize this. Deloitte, one of the most well-known finance companies in the world, has embraced the idea that mental health matters. They provide "Mental Health Champions" at work who provide a confidential one-to-one advisory service for those suffering from mental health problems, and educate managers on what to do if employees come forward with issues.
According to MIND's Claire Bennett, there are plenty of things workplaces can do. She suggested providing flexible working hours to those struggling, regular one-on-one meetings with managers in order to keep the dialogue between them and staff open, and subsidized exercise classes to help with general well-being. They've now started a voluntary Workplace Well-being Index, which is a bit like hygiene ratings for restaurants, but to show that a workplace is doing what it can to promote and support good mental health.
Although you wouldn't want to sign up if your company is the equivalent of a dodgy takeout restaurant that leaves its patrons with nothing but shame and the shits, if you're in the business of claiming you look after your staff, put your money where your leftie brand ethos is.
"Businesses, companies, employers need to be advertising the fact that they believe in mental health support," says Bethany. "They need to make that clear in whatever way they feel is fit. So people feel like they are safe to talk about it and safe in the fact they are your legal rights. Because, right now, people just don't believe it."
Follow Hannah Ewens on Twitter.
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