Mental illness can very easily get in the way of working. For those with severe mental illnesses, like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, the unemployment rate can be as high as 60-80%. Even short periods of depression can lead to lack of motivation, loss of interest and fatigue that negatively affect performance. Fortunately, emerging research suggests that people are having some positive experiences at work regarding mental illness.
This has not always been the case. Prejudice against people with mental illness is still prevalent. However, the general public is becoming more educated about mental illness in general and especially anxiety and depression, so attitudes are slowly shifting. That shift may be showing in the workplace as well.
Research, led by Nicola J. Reavley of The University of Melbourne, was recently published in the journal Stigma and Health. The researchers polled almost 1,400 people in Australia with mental illness about their experiences in a work environment. Of those reporting a mental illness, 72% were employed or volunteered outside the home.
Respondents were asked about stigma and discrimination in the workplace, but also asked whether or not they had been treated more positively after revealing a mental illness. More than half said had received support at work and had positive experiences.
These positive experiences were broken down into five general categories.
1 Time off
About 20% of those who reported having a mental illness said they were given time off with short notice or allowed a more flexible policy regarding time off.
2 Job flexibility
Eighteen percent of those polled also said they were given more flexibility at work in areas such as work location, scheduling, reduced workload and reduced pressure to perform.
Around 11% said their bosses or colleagues reached out to them more about how they were doing and whether or not they were okay.
4 Willingness to listen
Nine percent said they were able to talk to their bosses or coworkers about difficulties and received empathy and encouragement.
5 Encouragement to seek professional help
Just over 7% of those surveyed said they were encouraged to seek professional help. Some were offered resources or their workplace facilitated the process for them.
Deciding whether or not to disclose a mental illness to an employer is a personal choice. Once a person formally discloses a mental illness to their employer, by law they are offered some protections. If necessary, reasonable accommodations must also be made, for example providing a quiet working area or allowing time off for therapy or psychiatric treatment. This may be why some people are starting to see positive treatment at work.
While it is great that people are having positive experiences in the workplace when it comes to mental illness, these are still small numbers. In the same study, 27% of respondents said they were treated dismissively or told their illness wasn’t serious or real. Almost 25% said they were demoted or denied opportunities after disclosing a mental illness.
Discrimination against someone because of a mental illness may be illegal, but that doesn’t mean it has disappeared. There is still much more room for improvement.