Breaking the silence: The benefits of disclosing mental health at work

Image: The Conversation.

Breaking the silence: The benefits of disclosing mental health at work

The prevailing notion of keeping mental health concerns concealed at work has permeated for years, with fear of discrimination.

Breaking the silence: The benefits of disclosing mental health at work

Image: The Conversation.

Whether you know about it or not, it’s likely someone you work with or manage has a mental illness. One in five Australians have experienced a mental illness in the last 12 months.

Many people stay silent about their mental illness at work. Roughly 50%–70% of employees choose not to disclose their condition. This may leave employees vulnerable, as employers can’t provide individual support without disclosure.

ALSO READ: Parliament fire: More time needed to assess Zandile Mafe’s mental health

Over the years, many experts and commentators have suggested workers stay silent about mental illness, for fear of stigma and discrimination, and to protect their jobs.

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

What does the research say about disclosing mental conditions?

The largest Australian study of stigma, from 2018, found 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 disclosure can, for some people, lead to increased social support and better mental health. Being open about a mental health condition reduces self-stigma (negative beliefs people develop about themselves due to societal stigma and discrimination), increases empowerment and facilitates a sense of power and control.

Man looks at phone
Tools are available to guide you through the pros and cons. Shutterstock

Changing the culture

Many people with mental illnesses worry disclosing their condition will result in negative consequences, such as losing their job, being passed over for promotions, or being treated unfairly by colleagues.

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

However, the world of work is changing. Employees are seeking jobs that prioritise mental health, with many saying they would take a pay cut for an organisation that promotes and implements measures focused on employees mental health and happiness.

People who are open about their experiences with mental ill-health can experience increased 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.

ALSO READ: TNT Africa’s ‘Paper Spiders’ spotlights mental health awareness

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

So how can employers create safe environments for disclosure?

Managers have a huge responsibility when it comes to their employee’s mental health. According to recent research, managers have just as much impact on an employee’s mental health as their partner, and significantly more than their doctor or therapist.

ALSO READ: How music can be used as therapy for mental health

Managers need to ensure they provide a safe and supportive environment in which to disclose mental ill-health. This requires knowledge and confidence. Managers can emphasise the support and resources available to employees who choose to disclose, rather than dwelling on what the staff member might lose or the potential impact on the organisation.

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

Five years ago, and at the very tail-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 an increasing focus on mental wellbeing at work, it’s time our mental health advocates moved away from messages to stay silent. Instead, we need to ensure all staff with mental health conditions can access much-needed workplace support and accommodations.

ALSO READ: How universities can improve mental health

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

Article by 

  1. Nick Glozier. Professor of Psychological Medicine, BMRI & Disciplne of Psychiatry, University of Sydney
  2. Elizabeth Stratton. Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Common licence. Read the original article.