Mental illness stigma at work

With rates of mental illness as high as ever, sufferers and mental health professionals alike agree that more support is needed in the workplace, Holley Gawne reports.
With rates of mental illness as high as ever, sufferers and mental health professionals alike agree that more support is needed in the workplace. Holley Gawne reports.

“Jessica” is a talented artist. A foster carer for neglected or abandoned kittens. A passionate writer. A keen seamstress. She also happens to suffer from generalised anxiety and major depressive disorders.

“Why,” she says, “is this tiny portion of my life starting to define my entire existence?”

Jessica, 20, is one of 45 percent of people who will experience a mental illness in their working life, according to SANE Australia. This equates to one million Australian adults suffering from depression and two million suffering from anxiety in any given year.

Despite how common mental illness is; Jessica feels as though she has been constantly discriminated against in the few short years she has been a part of the workforce.

After being rejected in countless job applications, she says finding a job is difficult, particularly because under Centrelink Job Seeker conditions she is required to disclose her illness to potential employers.

“I know that legally they’re not supposed to discriminate against me, but I also know that if there’s another person applying for the job who is healthy…well then I don’t think it will be a coincidence if they get it over me,” she says.

She is not alone in her concerns, with a survey conducted by the Mental Health Council of Australia (MHCA) finding that 69 percent of those surveyed were uncomfortable with disclosing a mental illness to a potential or existing employer. More than a third of people said they would never inform an employer of their illness.

Jessica (not her real name) is studying to become a veterinary nurse. She says that while she did inform a vet clinic who she interned with last year of her illnesses, this did not lead to them providing her with additional support.

“I just needed a bit more encouragement and patience than a mentally healthy person would require, and I couldn’t always fake my confidence like the other interns around me could,” she says. “But it seemed that this meant I had a target on my back from the get-go.”

She says she felt forced to leave the clinic without completing her internship when she was told to “basically get over” the anxiety that led to her needing more reassurance in order to feel confident in the tasks she was completing.

“My supervisor was just very blunt…. All she had to do was be a bit subtler in her approach and I would have become a better worker,” she says.

Another survey by the MHCA found that 22 percent of people surveyed had witnessed mental illness based discrimination in their workplace.

Penne Dawe, a representative from Sane Australia’s Mindful Employer program, who educates employers on how to support workers with mental illnesses, says workplaces will benefit if they are understanding of the needs of employees with mental illnesses.

“Employers need to realise that it’s only going to improve their workplace if they’re supporting people properly…it’ll help people stay at work, it’ll help them perform better, it’s proven,” Penne says.

She says that changing the mind-set around how mental illness is viewed is vital to both a successful workplace and increasing the health of affected workers.

“Should you break a leg, you get support,” she says. “It’s only fair that mental health issues are viewed no differently, support needs to be the same no matter the health problem.”

Jessica agrees with Penne’s view. “It was clear my supervisor at the clinic had never experienced anything like I had before, but I don’t think that should mean that she doesn’t know how to help.”

A close family member of Jessica’s, Tracey, says her condition is worsened by the fact that she has had such negative experiences in the workforce.

“While Jessica doesn’t like to boast,” she says, “she’s a smart girl, and she’s caring, she’s so perfectly suited to her passion of working with animals. But all the doors slammed in her face don’t help her confidence, nor her mental state.”

Jessica agrees that a lack of support can lead to deteriorated mental health. “If people don’t feel like they can be honest in the workplace about their mental illness, then I feel like it’ll just force them to internalise everything, to suffer alone, to make things worse for themselves.”

Penne also says the stigma around mental illness is an “outdated and judgmental” view.

“I’ve got family members who have depression and never missed a day at work. A family member of mine has anxiety and she works harder than anyone I’ve ever met. It needs to stop.”

With an Australian Bureau of Statistics survey finding that 91 percent of people believe mental health in the workplace is an important issue, she says she hopes programs such as Mindful Employer will help employers and workplaces to change their processes that may allow stigma around mental illness to remain prevalent.

“In 2016, you just shouldn’t even be in that space, your processes should be better, there’s no excuse.”

Jessica says that despite her negative experiences, she hopes for an improvement in workforce thinking around mental illness and in her own struggle to keep employment.

“Look,” she says. “I feel like unemployment is pretty frowned upon and mental illness is pretty frowned upon.”

“But I’m not even 21 yet. There is time for change. If workplaces change their attitudes, then maybe I could be happier. That’s all I really hope for.”