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  • Writer's pictureJames Fairview

Should Employees Disclose a Mental Health Issue at Work?

Updated: May 31, 2020

Awareness of mental health has doubled in the past ten years. Governments, charities, celebrities and even royal family members have all advocated speaking out. But is it that straight forward? Should employees disclose a mental health issue at work?

The issue is one of trust. Can an employer be trusted with the knowledge the employee is struggling with poor mental health?

The employee with mental health issues must weigh up the situation and make a decision. Some of the factors they might consider are presented below.

Employees will also consider their employer’s track record. Does the employer have a truly pro-mental health culture (as opposed to simply paying lip-service to the issue)? Is mental health a regular topic of conversation within the organisation? Do leaders talk openly about their own mental health? How have other employees disclosing a mental health issue been treated? The employee’s perception of their employer’s attitude towards mental health will probably be a deciding factor.

Given some employer attitudes, perhaps employees should be wary. Studies have found over half of employers would rather not hire somebody with mental health issues and over half of employers see people with mental health issues as a ‘significant risk’ to their business. Why disclose a mental health issue if these are the attitudes that will greet the disclosing employee?

Employees may sense these negative employer attitudes. Business in the Community (BITC) found that employees are no more comfortable talking about their mental health now than they were four years ago, despite the increase in mental health awareness.

% of employees who feel comfortable talking to their line manager about their mental health

Source: Figures collated from Business in the Community (BITC)

In fact, the proportion of employees willing to talk about their mental health at work hasn’t changed much in well over a decade.

As for what actually happens to employees who disclose their mental health issues at work, the picture remains bleak. Around 20% of employees who disclose a mental health condition to their employer are disciplined, demoted, dismissed or resign, shortly after their disclosure. This 20% figure excludes employees who remain in employment but become stigmatised.

The proportion of employees suffering adverse effects following disclosure of a mental health issue is far too high.

This is a failure of leadership.

Leaders must develop a pro-mental health culture, before expecting employees to speak out about their mental health. Only once a pro-mental health culture exists, should employers encourage employees to speak out. And even here, the employer has additional responsibilities. The employer must ensure the employee does not come to regret their decision. The employer must do two things:

Firstly, leaders must ensure support, in whatever form is required, is available to the disclosing employee. This may take the form of ‘reasonable adjustments’, access to employee assistance and occupational health services, and access to training. It might also include checking in with the employee to ensure they feel they are being well-supported and are being treated fairly by others. A regular review with the employee will be essential.

Secondly, leaders must ensure colleagues at all levels support the disclosing employee. Leaders must ensure only positive support from colleagues is experienced. Any sense of being stigmatised or shame must not be allowed to develop. Allowing (through action or inaction) negative behaviours to develop amongst colleagues may lead to a worsening of any mental health issue.

Given some disclosures may be confidential – made to just a single manager, or limited to a small number – those leaders and managers ‘in the know’ must use nuanced approaches to ensure the disclosing employee is supported and protected by colleagues, whilst maintaining confidentiality.

Employees should not be expected to disclose a mental health issue until a pro-mental health culture has been developed. When they do disclose a mental health issue, leaders must ensure the disclosing employee does not come to regret their decision. Leaders can do so by making arrangements for the disclosing employee to receive any necessary support, whilst ensuring colleagues also support them. All of this may need to be done under a cloak of confidentiality.

As is evident, leaders must develop new skills - skills related to the leadership and management of workplace mental health – if they are to effectively support employee mental health and wellbeing and, in turn, optimise organisational performance.

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