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The Matter of Mental illness – Workplace Discrimination

After having recently written and lodged to the Human Rights Commission two complaints of discrimination for  previous colleagues of mine who live with mental illness, I admit to feeling a little upset. What am I upset about? On reflection it bothers me the discrimination was not a one off incident, there was clearly an abuse of their respective managers authority to make decisions and finally the common discourse that shone through was the company belief mental illness is not a real illness.

I was having a lot of emotional difficulties and requested time off or a modified work schedule for medical reasons. My employer demanded a diagnosis so my psychiatrist provided a diagnosis. My employer denied the request and noted that if I had serious psychiatric issues than I needed to resign’.

I mean there is no doubt fostering a mentally healthy workplace and supporting employees with mental health issues is a complex matter. 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 research highlights two primary reasons. These are; mental health stigma and mental health illiteracy. 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 its easier for employers to interpret a decline in productivity or increased absenteeism as a performance management issue when in fact the employee needs psychological assistance.

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.

So, how do we attain a mentally healthy workplace? The research emphasises integration of both individual strategies and organisational strategies is needed.  There are great practical guidelines available to Human Resource Directors to foster their continuous learning and/or gain buy in from senior leaders. Examples include: Fostering a Mentally Healthy Workplace (2014) by the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance and the “2010 Workers with Mental Illness: A Practical Guide for Managers” produced by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Now these reports don’t change the workplace culture, create new policies or educate staff on mental health thereby reducing mental health stigma but they can help the blind see the errors of their ways.

Ultimately though creating a psychologically safe workplace requires a shift towards higher order thinking, the adoption of new language, skills and processes. Further heightened emotional intelligence is imperative. I mean for me, my colleagues and the regulatory boards the call for business to adapt is clear and yet for some of us it seems we will need to learn the hard way.

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