Life Matters: Disclosing Depression at Work

Would you 'come out' to your employer about having depression? Legally, you aren't required to in Australia. But it's the leading cause of workplace absences. Do we need to do more about changing the culture of depression at work?

The following is a summary of the conversation about this topic on Radio National's Life Matters program on 15 February 2016. Guests were Anna Spargo Ryan (ASR), writer and digital strategist, who suffers from depression, plus Dr Catherine Page (CP), Deakin University's Cultural Expert. To listen to the full, 20 minute broadcast, click here.

ASR: "My depression can come on really suddenly, even over the course of a day. I tried to hide it, but couldn't find good enough reasons for me working from home, or working in another part of the building. I was terrified when I first had a conversation with my HR manager; I didn't approach my manager because I felt too close to her. It felt like I was exposing everything, but my HR manager understood as best she could. She was accommodating of my desire to be more productive when I am depressed and supportive of my ideas. I went in with a solution around flexible working conditions."

CP: "It's not an uncommon plight having to come up with your own strategy to manage depression. It's a pragmatic thing to do, since many managers and HR managers today don't have the knowledge or skills to know what to do, how to have that conversation or even pick up there is an issue."

ASR: "I had that first conversation 6 years ago and I had the same conversation 1 year ago. There are still no structured policies in a lot of workplaces."

Caller 1: "I dealt with depression on my own in many jobs, but eventually needed time off. I went to my boss, who was frantically busy. As he listened, he could see how upset I was getting. He shut the office door and gave me his full attention, was sympathetic and calm. he told me he had his own experience of depression and that made me feel I hadn't gone out on a limb, revealing too much. He normalised the situation and made me feel stronger, which was part of my healing. There is value in coming forward and pushing the issue in the workplace."

CP: "Research shows that around 60% of people will tell their employer, which is higher than you might expect. People tend to disclose if they feel empowered, have a good relationship with their manager and feel secure in their job, which is not true for everyone. If you do disclose your mental health issue, you are protected by discrimination legislation. Workplaces are also required to prevent any condition that might cause, or exacerbate a mental health condition. The major barriers to having conversations in the workplace are the stigma associated with mental health conditions and workplace stress, which is itself one of the leading causes of workplace related depression.

ASR: "Depression affects your feeling of self worth. You beat yourself up and feel you have to make up for it, by working harder, making more effort and being better than others. My negative mindset was that although I wanted to tell people, I thought they would see me as less valuable. It's hard to feel you're not going to be compared to other people without the issue. I thought, 'Why would my workplace bother with me, when I come with extra baggage?'"

CP: "That feeling of unworthiness is a common occurrence. It creates huge barriers within ourselves. People with mental health problems don't necessarily have performance issues. People have been trying to quantify the cost of mental health problems in the workplace as a way to incentivise workplaces to respond, but it reinforces the stigma that such people don't perform as well, which is not necessarily the case if they are being treated."

ASR: "The issue in the workplace is not necessarily loss of productivity, it's the feeling of not being able to talk about it that has more of an impact."

CP: "People end up taking days off and sick leave because they feel uncomfortable talking with their manager. Most managers have the right intentions. They can see something is happening to someone, they want to support them, but they don't know how to have that conversation and their HR person may not know any better. Mental health First Aid helps you to be able to respond to someone, help them access resources and provide support."

Caller 2: "I suffer from depression. When I was working, it never occurred to me to bring it up because of the stigma. Even now, when mental health issues are being discussed, it's hard to block the feelings of shame. I feel like a fraud."

Caller 3: "Work is my bedrock. I'm very focused intellectually when I am at work - it's like a switch. When I get home, then everything else starts to go backwards. Work is part of my self esteem. I did put down that I had depression on my pre-employment form recently, but I used to pretend that I went to the chiropractor once a week instead of the psychiatrist because that seemed more acceptable."

CP: "I hope we're at the tipping point of being able to talk about depression at work. There are lots more public conversations and more campaigns to normalise it so people feel less alone and fewer people are ignorant about it. We can have a conversation now and most people accept it as a medical condition, which is a broadly positive response."

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Have you got a story that you would like to share with others about issues in the workplace that have affected your mental wellbeing? Do you need help now for yourself or a colleague or direct report in the workplace? Please make Contact.

Want to find out more about a new peer mentoring and workplace wellbeing service being set up in Perth? Visit the Project Phoenix webpage and make Contact

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