I have lived with depression most of my life so when I accepted a new job five years ago I ticked the box for disability. In my third year of employment my manager changed. Without any discussion my role and working conditions were restructured. I became anxious and to take care of myself further prevent relapse of my depression I planned, across the year, in consult with my psychiatrist two private hospital admissions. I gave due notice.

My new manager questioned my absenteeism and upon my return amidst a team meeting expressed her frustration with the timing of team members leave and the consequent impact it had on workload. A colleague then suggested that any future leave by any team member be discussed amongst the team first, so the timing would be convenient for all. I felt backed into a corner…no reasonable grounds were provided in fact upon lodging my complaint with the Human Rights Commission not even HR noticed I had ticked the box… (Susan- pseudonym)

In 2018 I wrote and lodged on behalf of two ex- colleagues to the Human Rights Commission complaints of discrimination against mental illness. Why didn’t they complete the process themselves? Because the trauma of being strategically performance managed out of the organisation took the wind out of them- they were too distressed to seek legal counsel. On reflection it bothered me the discrimination was not a one- off incident, and the common discourse communicated by the company was ‘mental illness is not a real illness’.

Fostering a mentally healthy workplace and managing employees living with mental illness is a complex matter. It challenges our pre-existing workplace beliefs. However, when its estimated, on average 17-20% of workers in any 12- month period [1] present with mental health concerns it does raise the question how do operational managers and HR departments lack such knowledge?

The two main reasons for workplace discrimination towards mental illness are:

  1. Stigma of mental health and mental illness. Stigma stops business from prioritising mental health and acquiring mental health knowledge and skills. Fear of prejudice also prevents employees from disclosing mental illness, for example, what is easier to do? phone your boss to say you won’t be in for work today due to a stomach virus or you have just had a panic attack.

Unfortunately, when the illness remains invisible it’s easier for employers to interpret like the example above – a decline in productivity or increased absenteeism as a performance management issue when in fact the employee needs psychological assistance.

  1. Illiteracy – Mental Health Stigma feeds illiteracy: when we avoid a topic, we fail to learn about it.  Beyond Blue estimates as a result 40% of Australians living with depression never seek help. Not being able to recognise mental health issues prevents early detection and intervention which is paramount in treating the illness. In the workplace early detection reduces staff presenteeism which in turn reduces the risk of personal injury.

Here are seven tips for improving workplace mental health and preventing discrimination:

  1. The research is clear both individual and organisational strategies are needed. Redesigning workload (providing reasonable grounds) and workplace environment is as important as fostering employee resilience.
  1. Identify and dispel any myths about mental health and illness through education. Media footage of mental illness often highlights crazy behaviour fostering societal fear. The symptoms of depression too often judged as avoidant and lazy.

A good starting point is to engage mental health champions across the organisation. Support them to acquire their mental health first aid certificate. It helps to break down stigma and foster early help seeking behaviour. Organisations waste a lot of time and money blindly performance managing the symptoms of mental illness.

  1. Do your research- create a library of resources to foster greater insight, seek wise counsel, write policy and guide decision making. For example, the Human Rights Commission “2010 Workers with Mental Illness: A Practical Guide for Managers.”
  1. Know the law and make sure your policies align to it- Although this does not 100% guarantee a psychologically safe workplace – toxic relationships and behaviour still exist. It does create accountability and ways to measure unhealthy workplace behaviour.
  1. Understand mental health and physical health are interrelated. If your workplace is psychologically unsafe it is also physically dangerous.
  1. Remember workplace mental health is not just an individual employee pursuit. Its relational. We have had anti bullying laws and policies for 20years? And 25% of employees still report having directly been bullied or have been witness to it.  Understanding the nature of relationships, how to engage in healthy dialogue, dispel unhelpful beliefs, resolve conflict and group dynamics remains largely untapped.
  1. Keep the big picture- Strategically managing someone out of an organisation just because they currently challenge an organisational norm, or you think they would be “better off” without the stress requires careful thought. Employment provides people with a sense of purpose and meaning. It is a societal good.

Cultural diversity is an organisational strength not weakness. Believing you know more than the employee in terms of what is best for their health in turn allowing this to form the basis of your decisions- creates a dangerous foundation for discrimination.

Creating a psychologically safe workplace requires a monumental shift to higher order thinking. Reflective practice; emotional intelligence, the adoption of new language, skills and processes are required. I mean for me, my colleagues and the regulatory bodies the call for business to adapt is clear- the knowledge and resources to change are available. The challenge in prioritising mental health comes down to recognising our own prejudice and being willing to change it.

References

[1]. De Lorenzo, M.S. (2013). Employee Mental Illness: Managing the Hidden Epidemic. Employ Respons Rights J, 25: 219-238.

[2]. Beyond Blue. (2016). What is depression? [Fact Sheet]. https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/what-is-mental-health

[3].  Harvey, S.B., Sadhbh, J., Tan, L, Johnson., A, Nguyen., H, Modini., & Groth, M. (2014). Developing a mentally healthy workplace: A review of the literature. Retrieved from https://www.headsup.org.au/docs/default-source/resources/developing-a-mentally-healthy-workplace_final-november-2014.pdf?sfvrsn=8

[4]. McMillan, L. (2016). Snapshot of the Australian Workplace.  Reventure Ltd. Retrieved from https://www.convergeinternational.com.au/docs/default-source/research/a-future-that-works-2016-snapshot-of-the-australian-workplace

[5]. Australian Human Rights Commission. (2010). Workers with Mental Illness: a Practical Guide for Managers. Retrieved from https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/disability-rights/publications/2010-workers-mental-illness-practical-guide-managers