Should you tell your boss about your mental illness? Here’s what to evaluate

Whether you know it or not, someone you work with or manage is likely to have a mental illness. One in five Australians have had a mental illness in the past 12 months.

Many people keep quiet about their mental illness at work. Approximately 50%70% of employees choose not to disclose their condition. This can leave employees vulnerable, as employers cannot provide one-on-one support without disclosure.

Over the years, many experts and commentators have advised workers to keep quiet about mental illness, out of fear of stigma and discrimination, and to protect their jobs.

But evidence suggests there are often benefits to disclosing a mental health condition at work.

What does the research say?

Australia’s largest stigma study, 2018, found that employees who disclosed their mental health conditions to their employers were well supported. They reported receiving accommodations such as flexible work arrangements and time off for appointments. They also felt supported by their colleagues and managers.

Other research shows that disclosure can, for some people, lead to greater social support and better mental health. Being open about a mental health condition reduces self-stigma (negative beliefs people develop about themselves as a result of social stigma and discrimination), increases empowerment, and facilitates a sense of power and control.

Our team conducted a randomized controlled trial involving 107 adults considering disclosing their mental health problems at work. Participants used our newly developed online decision aid to make an informed decision about disclosing their mental health concerns to their employers. It includes seven modules to guide users to consider the potential outcomes, benefits and challenges of dissemination.

A decision aid review found that people who disclosed their mental health condition at work reported a reduction in symptoms of depression and stress (severe to moderate), on average, compared to those who chose to stay in silence. This finding was based on self-reported clinical diagnostic scales for depression and validated measures of stress.

The decision aid is now publicly available and can be used free of charge through the New South Wales State Insurance Regulatory Authority.

The man looks at the phone
Tools are available to walk you through the pros and cons.

Changing the culture

Many people with mental illness fear that disclosing their condition could have negative consequences, such as losing their job, being passed over for promotions, or being treated unfairly by co-workers.

These concerns are major barriers to disclosure and can become a reality for some people who disclose.

However, the world of work is changing. Employees are looking for jobs that prioritize mental health, and many say they would take a pay cut for an organization that promotes and implements measures focused on mental health and employee happiness.

Read more: Why it’s more important than ever that workplaces have employee wellbeing plans in place

People who are open about their experiences with mental health issues may experience greater self-acceptance and feelings of connectedness. Disclosure can help people feel more understood and supported by others, which in turn can lead to greater feelings of self-worth and belonging.

Sharing their experiences helps break down the stigma surrounding mental illness and foster a culture of openness, understanding and empathy among peers. It can also help colleagues overcome fear of stigma.

So how can employers create safe environments for disclosure?

Managers have a huge responsibility when it comes to the mental health of their employees. According to recent research, managers have the same impact on an employee’s mental health as their partner, and far more so than their doctor or therapist.

Managers need to ensure they provide a safe and supportive environment in which to disclose mental health concerns. This requires knowledge and trust. Managers can emphasize the support and resources available to employees they choose to disclose, rather than dwelling on what the staff member could be missing out on or the potential impact on the organization.

People who perceive their disclosure positively tend to have supportive managers. As David told us of our research:

Five years ago, and right at the end of my career, I thought I’d confide in a boss. His first words were: What can we do to help you? With those simple words, he instantly won my undying loyalty.

With a growing focus on mental well-being at work, it’s time for our mental health advocates to step away from messages to remain silent. Instead, we must ensure that all staff with mental health conditions can access much-needed workplace support and housing.

By creating environments where employees feel safe and supported to share their experiences, we can begin to break down barriers to disclosure and create workplace cultures that prioritize mental health and wellbeing. For many, outreach can be a positive, and we have the tools to help.

Read more: It’s RUOK Day but ‘how can I help?’ might be a better question to ask

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