Disclosing a mental health condition with your workplace

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Should you share your mental health condition with your workplace?

Today, more and more organisations are developing strategies and teams to better support well-being in the workplace. An increased awareness of the need for and importance of creating mentally healthier workplaces is evident through the number of organisations engaging Mental Health First Aid® (MHFA™) training. If advocacy and social media are anything to go by, more people are feeling comfortable being open and honest about their own mental health status.

Yet with all this movement forward, disclosing a mental health condition remains a deeply personal decision. It is a decision based on personal sentiment and disclosure-related goals, and the potential attitudes and culture of current and future workplaces.

Let’s examine the pros and cons of disclosing your mental health condition with your employer

Pros

Open disclosure helps with management strategies

Having an open discussion about mental health with an employer may provide an opportunity to talk about specific requirements you might have. That might be extra sick leave, rostered days off, time-in-lieu and/or flexible working arrangements. Access to leave entitlements and working in a flexible working arrangement may help improve the management of depression and other mental health conditions. It may also open the door to further mental health management with strategies like ‘return to work’ plans.

It helps normalise mental health conversations

The more open and honest conversations we have about mental health, the greater the chance of breaking down stigma and barriers. Mental health does not differ from physical health. Yet while many people are happy to talk about going to the gym or cycling to work, there is often a reluctance or hesitancy in talking openly about mental health. Stigma thrives in the darkness. Removing this darkness through open dialogue may help ease the stigma attached and potentially help reduce the stress associated for individuals who may be ‘hiding’ their experiences and needs.

Helps create community in the workplace

44% of Australians experience a mental health crisis in their lifetime. The sheer volume makes encountering a person with personal or indirect lived experience of a mental health condition likely. Sharing this experience may help others gain the confidence to share their own.

By individuals bringing the mental health conversation to the workplace, the potential for safer disclosure for others increases. This has the potential to positively impact working conditions and influence stronger policies, while improving outcomes along the way.

It identifies the need for training

Knowing there are others going through similar experiences helps create opportunities for change. Change can be harder to initiate if everyone struggles in silence. Identifying patterns in high-stress industries like banking or construction, or as a means of noticing trends or shifts in society generally comes from safe, open disclosure. If the culture needs change and the individuals need extra resources, it’s easier to identify if discussion is encouraged. It also helps identify if the workplace would benefit from Mental Health First Aid training and/or if specialist or additional training is required.

Advocacy can shine a light for others to follow

By speaking from lived experience and tapping into the shared experiences of an industry or the times, you may open the door to other people feeling safe to participate in the mental health conversation. It can highlight a willingness to promote or even aid in company-wide change, towards greater accessibility and inclusion. It can also help foster the growth of safe mental health disclosure in companies or industries, increasing the volume of voices sharing their experience, and even further the mental health conversation amongst your peers.

Cons

Old attitudes still survive

Certain industries and management structures are slow to change. Whether it’s cultural, industry-wide or the influence of outdated management techniques, the result is generally the same. It can be difficult to recover from disclosure if the people or workplace are unable or ill equipped to understand it or see the value. If it is an industry-wide problem, it may negatively affect future hiring prospects or an overall sense of safety within that vocation.

Personal vulnerability

While disclosing a mental health condition may herald in a new era of personal freedom, it may also increase the attention people pay to your private life or mental health condition. That may lead to curious minds asking questions that can feel intrusive or takes up personal time and brain space as interest grows. It takes patience, resilience, and a fair amount of knowledge to answer these questions effectively. It may increase emotional labour or generate a sense that they lay your life bare. It may be difficult at times to separate the person from the disclosure.

It’s important to remember that even well-meaning allies and colleagues can sometimes make thoughtless yet unintentional mistakes as they learn and grow. It’s equally important to remember disclosure of a mental health condition doesn’t mean your privacy, comfort or well-being should suffer in order to educate others. Deciding early on where the boundaries lie in what you will and won’t discuss and under what circumstances can really help create a balance between other people’s desire to understand and what you need as a thinking, feeling person.

Is the workplace ready?

Some workplaces are more adaptable and prepared to change than others. This readiness may determine the success of your approach and the potential for change in the future. Taking the time to assess the personalities within an organisation and read the room can be a helpful exercise. It may also be beneficial to plan out longer term, low-intensity changes that create momentum over time, giving greater ability to manage objections or misconceptions, as well as your own mental health and emotional management.

Consider the emotional readiness and maturity of the industry, workplace culture, and individuals within prior to disclosure. Look for signs of receptiveness to change, like growing support for mental health-related campaigns or greater acceptance of difference and diversity. It may also be worthwhile to sound out potential supporters and allies prior to tackling the wider organisation.

The policies may not protect you

While Australia has come a long way with discrimination law, there is still some lag in mental health policy, especially in the workplace. It’s important to understand what policies, procedures and recourse are available in relation to safe disclosure. This includes with a particular company and individual employment agreements as well as in relation to state and federal law.

It’s a good idea to map out contingency plans to identify potential issues and possible eventualities prior to disclosure for added peace of mind.

To disclose or not to disclose?

No one person can decide what the right course of action may be for another person’s career or mental well-being. Weighing up the rewards with the consequences and deciding on a course of action is an incredibly personal undertaking defined by individual choices.  

Final tips on the road to mental health disclosure are:

  • Make mental health the priority. No matter what is disclosed, make sure it is the right decision on a personal level. People spend far too much time at work to allow overall well-being, safety, and mental health to be compromised.
  • Always do the research. Check any enterprise agreement, employee contract and/or general HR policy to understand the systems and processes in place at your workplace.
  • Define the aim of the disclosure. Chart out the goals and expectations, wishes and wants (i.e., seeking support or reasonable adjustments from your workplace). Examine the potential impediments to achieving those goals and build a contingency plan.
  • Help the organisation make a positive and informed decision. Don’t be shy about making a case for the benefits of creating a mentally healthy workplace. Make use of Mental Health First Aid Australia blogs, case studies and training opportunities to highlight the benefits of safe disclosure and supportive workplaces.  

The rewards and consequences of disclosing a mental health condition are incredibly real. Always choose when and if it is right for the circumstances at hand.

References and Sources

MHFA Helping employees successfully return to work following depression, anxiety or a related mental health problem guidelines for organisations https://www.mhfa.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/Return_To_Work_Guidelines.pdf

Australian Government Institute of Health and Welfare – Mental health: prevalence and impact Nov 2022 https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/mental-health-services/mental-health

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