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Mental Health Stigma and Why Telling Your Boss Is So Hard

May 2, 2017

Telling your boss that you have a mental health problem is hard. Really hard.

Even though you’ve made major gains in taming your dragons; even though you have strategies and mechanisms in place to manage Mental Health Wellness Psychology Mindyour condition and keep you productive; even though you’d have no issues telling them you need time off or consideration for just about any other health problem… when your depression, anxiety or other mental health condition asserts its will over you, it layers on guilt, feelings of inadequacy, fear and desperation, and that conversation may be one of the hardest you’ve ever faced.

When we hear of workplace discrimination due to disabilities or illness, our default response is surprise and outrage. If your partner or mother or child or friend were demoted, sidelined or otherwise disadvantaged because their liver condition temporarily worsened requiring time off, we’d raise hell and go after their employer with pitch-forks at the ready. We’d start social media campaigns, alert the media and raise hell.

Why then, are mental health related considerations different?

Even your knowledge and acceptance that mental health conditions are just like any other health complication doesn’t diminish your fears about how you will be perceived. Will you be disadvantaged in future? Will your boss assume you can’t handle pressure ever? Will they think you’re a risk to the organisation? Will they tell other people things you desperately want to keep private? Are you effectively terminating your progress by telling them you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, a psychotic disorder or a myriad of other mental health problems?

Article – The Conversation: To disclose or not to disclose mental health issues in the workplace

If you’ve dealt with a mental health condition for some time, odds are you’ve encountered all manner of responses upon disclosure. Not knowing how your boss will react is one of the key reasons telling them is so hard.

Despite one in five Australians experiencing mental health problems each year, nearly half of all senior managers believe none of their workers will experience a mental health problem at work. (Source: Hilton, Whiteford, Sheridan, Cleary, Chant, Wang, Kessler (2008) The Prevalence of Psychological Distress in Employees and Associated Occupational Risk Factors, cited in Managing Someone with a Mental Health Condition humanrights.gov.au fact sheet)

I don’t pretend to know how to deal with your situation, but if you’re new to this then maybe my experience, combined with experiences others have shared with me throughout the years, might at least help you to reflect on how it might go down, and thus how best to approach it.

Disclaimer: The following is entirely anecdotal and should not be considered legal, health or professional advice. I strongly advise you to speak with your GP who can direct you to professional organisations offering research-backed assistance.

My categorisation of typical supervisor responses are as follows:

The Process Junkee

Some bosses are aware that these types of health issues exists, have been briefed on the company policies, and are ready to swing into action. They prefer not to ‘get personal’ with their charge about specifics, tending instead to simply direct the employee toward any help which may be available, quickly reshuffling their work tasks as necessary to ensure things keep moving along. In many cases this is actually very effective because the employee can feel that the existence of a process and their boss’ rapid action means this is all quite routine and there’s no particular stigma. It is, however, entirely dependent upon a well thought-out and supported organisational process, so it can result in the employee’s dazed ejection from the system which fails them during the next steps.

The Passive-Agressive

This boss is aware of mental health issues, at least by name, and carefully treads around outright discrimination by seeming outwardly concerned, but still manages to make their charge feel like crap with their faux supportive language. Examples such as “Oh you’re right, your memory really is effected by this mind thing isn’t it?” and “Do you think you can handle that by yourself?” This sort of boss leaves their employee feeling cautious and guarded at best, completely unsupported and alone at worst. They’re covered though – they always protect the organisation. The employee will likely eventually just leave of their own accord, and the cycle can repeat itself.

The Bombastic Arsehole

This boss outright belittles people with mental health problems because they’re week or “can’t hack it”. They’re the mental health advocacy equivalent of climate change deniers. They are hopefully a dying breed, because organisations do fear the consequences of breaching anti-discrimination laws, but they do exist and they are dangerous. I suspect smaller organisations without well established HR departments and policies harbour a concentration of these, along with upper management of any organisation where they’ve been promoted beyond actually dealing with employees in any meaningful way. If this sounds like your boss, you may be better off not telling them and just quietly moving on, because in reality the last thing anyone suffering major depression or anxiety needs is a long, public legal battle, which is what may come of this. I’d love to tell you that HR are your friend here, and they’re another avenue to seek help, but be cautious because in reality, HR departments are generally charged with protecting the company from litigation and industrial action. On occasion though, one of these bosses has managed to evade detection and will be stamped out rapidly once HR learn of their blatantly dangerous conduct, so you’ll have to read the room. If there’s a culture of this sort of conduct, bail. If the Bombastic Arsehole seems to be the exception, you might find allies in other managers, and they may encourage and support your engagement with HR.

The Deer in the Headlights

This boss tends to be inexperienced, either as a manager generally, or just with mental health issues. They may manage a small or long-serving team without much staff turnover, so may have just never had a charge come to them with these issues. They will tend to become more wide-eyed, the more you tell them about your condition. Don’t panic – they may turn out to be very supportive allies. But also be a little wary, as they may tend to turn you over to someone else because they don’t know what to do. If you think this may be your boss’ reaction, it’s probably best to investigate your organisation’s mental health support policies first, if possible, so you can guide them toward the support they can access as a manager, and that which you need as the employee. If you’re not capable of that right now, throw them a bone for dealing with your immediate needs and turn up with a Doctor’s Certificate saying you’re unfit for duty, and come back to the conversation later, when you’ve had time to investigate these policies in a more relaxed mind-set. Enlisting another, more experienced manager can also help greatly in this situation.

The Counsellor

This one is interesting, because although their heart is in the right place, they may actually do some harm along with the good. The Counsellor tends to accept the situation quickly, putting you at ease and telling you everything will be okay. But then their own experiences might obstruct your progress, because they might carry pre-conceptions about mental health which don’t apply to your situation, and can fail to listen to what you say you need. They may tell you what you need to do, because it worked for them or someone close to them, and they may ignore or simply fail to notice what you’re telling them you need. On balance, this boss isn’t a bad one to have, especially if you’re a veteran of many mental health battles who feels strong enough to direct them and tell them what you need. In all likelihood though, once you push through their misconceptions, this boss will be in your corner.

The Mentor

This boss is really the best you can hope for, as they’re experienced enough to know how best to balance your needs and theirs, and they’ll put you at ease about what’s to come. They are informed about mental health, they’re not judgemental, and they understand your value to the organisation even though you’re not currently operating at your peak. They will know what support is available to you, they’ll handle any necessary internal communications, and they’ll give you time to get help and work on your condition. Don’t expect limitless concessions though – they have responsibilities, and they are mindful of the impact your reduced involvement may bring, so expect them to ask you to complete certain tasks within a reasonable timeframe. You’ll need to be open and honest with them, and you’ll need to commit to working on your recovery. They’ll have your back while you do.

I’m sure there are variations to these, and bosses who perhaps straddle multiple types. Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments.

If you are a manager, the odds are overwhelming one of your current or future charges has/will come to you with mental health issues. How will/did you react? Despite your organisational policies, which should be robust and in line with research, there are many resources available to you to help you help each-other. Here are but a few:

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