Busting Five Myths about Mental Health at Work

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In my conversations with people about mental health and resilience at work (see Let's Talk Mental Health!), I have come across many myths and preconceived notions that hold people back from understanding how to approach this important topic. So, in this blog I would like to challenge you to reconsider some myths and preconceived notions you may hold. I have been assisted with quotes from other willing contributors who have managed mental health issues while working.

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Myth 1 - People with mental health issues are all unemployed and unemployable

It seems ignorant and naive to me that people subscribe to this viewpoint, yet many still do. I have even come across this attitude from some mental health professionals, politicians with responsibility for mental health, and even people who have a lived experience of mental health issues. So, I want you to know, first up, we can and do work!

People with mental health issues are not all on welfare payments, nor 'cashing in' via the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) because they 'claim' to be unable to work. Those who can't work do need our support through our welfare system, health system and social services, but the vast majority of people who are managing a mental health issue, or have experienced a mental health issue AND recovered, are at work.

"I have experienced mental health issues since I was 17 years old, and I have worked since I was 13. My career has involved being a journalist and subeditor, a volunteer manager, selling sporting equipment, working in government and supporting the elderly; now I am a consultant. There have been times when I have been so unwell that I could not go to work for a period, but as soon as I recovered, I went back. Whenever I have been out of the paid workforce, I have been volunteering." Consultant
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Myth 2 - The only place where people with mental health issues can work is in the mental health sector

I come across this attitude all too often, especially in discussions about peer support workers, who bring their invaluable lived experience into the workplace to help other people on their own recovery journeys. Suddenly, the assumption becomes that anyone who has (or had) a mental health issue will work in a mental health related sphere.

Someone forgot to mention this 'fact' to Winston Churchill, for example, who was chased at times by 'the black dog' (aka depression). In case you hadn't noticed, people with mental health issues can contribute effectively to ALL types of work at ALL levels within an organisation, i.e., we can be company owners and managers, as well as employees; we can be tradies, health professionals, lawyers, engineers, accountants, writers, designers, entrepreneurs, etc. What we do bring as a result of our experiences though, is greater empathy and understanding of human organisations.

"One of the biggest gifts my illnesses and contact with the mental health system have given me is the ability to really empathise with people’s individual concerns and understand work processes systemically, organically and from a whole-of-organisation viewpoint. I have transferred these abilities to multiple fields of work to improve efficiency and create better outcomes. I don’t think I would be as conscientious, empathetic, driven and reliable a worker that I am if I hadn't experienced what I have." Consultant

Despite us being capable workers, and there being Australian laws to prevent discriminatory practices in recruitment, some of us can miss out on a job due to our mental health history, even in the mental health sector (as the quote below shows). It is time for all types of employers to throw out any preconceptions they may harbour about mental health issues and stop being overtly or covertly discriminatory in this way.

"I was offered a senior role in a mental health organisation, and just before I was about to start the role I got a phone call from the CEO to advise me that the job offer was being withdrawn as it had come to her attention that I have received mental health services in the past and I had not reported it at interview. There is no obligation on the part of a person applying for a job to report medical history at interview, and I believe it is discrimination to withdraw a job offer on this basis. When I reported it, I was advised to walk away quietly, as (they) could do me a lot of damage personally and professionally, and cost me a lot of money, if I tried to go down the discrimination pathway." Jobseeker
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Myth 3 - There are very few people with mental health issues in most workplaces

You may not know who is managing a mental health issue in your workplace because there is no obligation to disclose that, but statistics tell us there are way more people than you think, who are managing some level of mental distress while working (currently 1 in 5 Australians are experiencing a mental health issue).

I recommend that people who don't know much about mental health issues should inform themselves, both for their own sake and in case they need to support someone else. Statistics also tell us that 1 in 2 Australians will experience a mental health issue at some point in their life.

"Don't judge me, you could be me in another life, in another set of circumstances." from Tomorrow We'll See, by Sting

By the way, in case you have not thought about it, carers of people with a mental health issue can be as affected at work by their responsibilities outside of work as the people who work with a mental health issue.

"I have just been supporting a colleague who had two family members suicide in a week, and she got sacked for talking about personal issues at work. Really great compassion!" Researcher
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Myth 4 - It's easy to speak up if you're having a problem with your mental health at work

Many people find it extremely hard to recognise that they are struggling with a mental health issue, or find the courage and motivation to speak up (see Barriers and Enablers to dealing with Mental Health Issues). Sometimes disclosure leads to adverse outcomes for the individual, both intentional and unintentional (see Should you speak out about Mental Illness in the Workplace?). Here are some examples:

"I found my anxiety was mostly work related, and the stigma that went with it, I had everything from over the top sympathy, to being outcast like some sort of leper. All I really wanted was a little breathing room and no-one to overreact, and what I got was – take 6 months off or, if you don’t pull yourself together you will be fired… not helpful.... Looking back now, I can see just how unprepared my employer (and employers in general), are to deal with mental health issues. How dangerous it is to let untrained managers loose on people who are struggling." Business Development Manager
"I had a couple of hospitalisations during the course of a three-year employment period plus a few days off here and there due to illness, like any other employee. However, I was forced to sign an informal “contract” which stipulated what I would and would not do if unwell – basically a piece of paper that said if you do A, B or C, you don’t get paid and we will consider firing you. There was no mention or discussion of supports that could be put in place to prevent A, B or C from occurring. I later resigned due to workplace bullying." Consultant
“I was fired from a government job for behaviour that occurred during a full-blown manic episode. Early, appropriate intervention by my employer could have saved me the trauma of hospitalisation and self-harm, and saved them the loss of productivity. There was no discussion of assistance, or measures to help.” Former Government employee
"I have been so damaged after people have found out that I had prior experience of mental illness; the bullying and discrimination after disclosure ends up making you sick, when you would have otherwise have functioned fine. Discrimination and stigma is still rife: it is amazing the difference in the way you get treated when people don't know about mental illness." Occupational Therapist

"Discrimination is why people do not disclose. Work is about fulfilling the job description and furthering the company’s goals, and by law the workplace needs to be a safe for ALL employees, regardless of race, gender, disability or other identifier. I have not to this day heard of anyone with a physical illness or disability experiencing the discrimination or outright mistreatment that people like myself have in the workplace due to the misfortune of having a mental illness.” Consultant

I am sure we would all be far better off if people could openly discuss their mental health in the same way as they might raise a physical health issue (see Talking about Mental Health Issues in the Workplace for some ideas on how to approach this). It is not just individuals who suffer due to discriminatory or ignorant attitudes towards their mental health, but also their organisations because of lost productivity (both presenteeism and absenteeism), increased staff turnover (resulting in loss of expertise and experience, additional time spent in recruitment and onboarding, etc.) and reputational damage (many studies have shown that employees value organisations with a better workplace mental health track record more highly).

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Myth 5 - Striving for mentally healthy workplaces is optional, just a 'nice to have'

Striving for mentally healthy workplaces makes sense from a productivity as well as a humanitarian perspective; poor mental health costs Australian business ca. $10.9 billion per annum (see Why we should build Mentally Resilient Workplaces).

However, more often than not, developing a mentally healthy workplace is de-prioritised in favour of 'core business'. Quite often it is palmed off by leaders to the human resource, or occupational health professionals, to be worked on in the sidelines 'when you have the time and money'. Mental health IS core business and deserves leadership attention, although I think all too often leaders are part of the problem because they are ignorant of the effect they are having on their staff (however that might be my focus for another blog!).

"My former employer has a clear history of pushing people to the brink – they have been through 15 employees in 2 years, and I would honestly say 80% of those people left because the pressure and stress became too much, lead by a culture of bullying and fear." Business Development Manager

Mentally healthy workplaces develop greater resilience. Resilient workplaces have a culture that is inclusive and caring, people are motivated, work well together, and there is a sense of optimism and positivism. Employees tend to be more loyal to workplaces like this, take less time off work and be more focused while they are at work.

And finally ... I would like to thank my LinkedIn connections who volunteered quotes and feedback on this article prior to publication based on their experience of mental health issues. To leave you with a final quote from one of these people :

"You should never drive forward while looking in the rear view mirror. It's neither healthy nor sustainable. Focus on the future." Partner of an Accounting Firm

If you want to share your experience or thoughts about any of these myths, leave a comment below, contact me, or head to the community Facebook page Mind People at Work to read and share more about mental health at work.

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