Should you speak out about mental illness in the workplace?

Mental illness in the workplace - a worrying tide - visit headsup.org.au by beyond blue for information, advice and tools

Mental illness in the workplace - a worrying tide - visit headsup.org.au by beyond blue for information, advice and tools

Mental health and wellbeing, plus suicide prevention should be hot topics for all workplaces and managers. Today I went to a talk by Michael O'Hanlon, Workplace Engagement Manager from Australia's 'beyond blue' organisation as part of our Mental Health Week, and I want to share some personal thoughts on the topic of encouraging disclosure.

Fear and ignorance amongst people without a lived experience of mental illness hold back discussion of mental health issues generally in the community and the workplace. For those with lived experience of mental illness, shame, feelings of vulnerability, plus real and perceived stigma are major barriers to discussion, more so than the condition itself. 

45% of people will experience some form of mental illness at some point in their lives, yet 65% of them do not seek any form of help. At any one time, 1 in 5 people are experiencing mental distress, the most common being depression and anxiety (see statistics below). People do learn how to cope with a mental illness and the vast majority of people recover over time. Seeking help and regaining hope for a better future are the first steps in that recovery journey. The main barriers that hold people back from seeking help are lack of knowledge (not recognising the signs) or insight into their condition, lack of knowledge of available services and/or lack of access to services. 

In the Western Australia workplace, there is also a pervasive culture of machismoism and egotism. Consequently, men tend to feel more inhibited about speaking up, and sadly, they are three times more likely to die of suicide than women. Fear of embarrassment, fear of discrimination and fear that disclosure will be career limiting or even career threatening are the most common reasons cited for not speaking up. However, 2 out of 3 people who disclose a mental health issue to their workplace report a generally positive outcome.

Managers need to clearly distinguish between an employee's capabilities and competences, versus their physical or mental health in order to encourage dialogue. Enabling people to speak openly about mental wellbeing as well as mental health issues tends to improve productivity and reduce absenteeism, which costs Australian businesses about $10 billion a year if it is not addressed.

All employees need to recognise they have an obligation to take care of their own and their colleagues' mental health. Managers and colleagues should:

  • Listen non-judgementally and without prejudice to anyone who reveals some form of mental distress
  • Validate what they are saying (take it seriously), but not try to instantly fix it (there are no quick fixes) and
  • Keep it confidential (a legal requirement)

A person who is accustomed to managing a recurring mental illness will likely know what's best for them and can work out a plan with their manager to cope. Someone who is not yet diagnosed needs to be pointed in the right direction for medical assessment and support.

So before you encounter mental distress for yourself, in your family, or in your workplace, become informed about the early warning signs and where to go to seek help locally. A few places to start looking include the online resources provided by beyond blue, SANE Australia, the Black Dog Institute, Mind Frame and headspace - and there are many more.

AUSTRALIAN STATISTICS (from beyond blue)

  • Depression affects 1 million people a year: 1 in 6 are women, 1 in 8 are men
  • Anxiety affects 2 million people a year: 1 in 3 are women, 1 in 5 are men
  • There are 7 deaths attributable to suicide each day (twice the national road toll) - of these, 5 are men
  • For every suicide, there are 30 suicide attempts, 200 planned suicides and 1000 people thinking of suicide

[Article also published on ThisFIFOLife]