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Mental Health Stigma and Why Telling Your Boss Is So Hard

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 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.

Read more…


Talking about mental health helps yourself and others

Depression and anxiety are a part of my life. These are just two of a huge variety of mental health problems which are just that – health problems, like asthma, glaucoma or tinnitus.

Like other health problems, sometimes the mental health problems of your colleagues, family or friends require additional consideration. They don’t mean your colleague/friend/family member are weak, not trying, or needy. They just mean they might take a little longer to do that task, or might need help, or many other considerations.

You may not realise this, but you’re likely surrounded by people who deal with mental health problems every day. We’re everywhere, and many of us manage to do a great job and never tip you off to our daily struggle.

We don’t want your sympathy (although sometimes a hug can do wonders to be honest), but we really need your understanding. Don’t assume our condition means we’re are less capable, but understand that sometimes we are going to need some consideration, just like an asthma sufferer might need to sit out the team-building shuttle run around the car-park, or the chronic back-pain sufferer might need to skip the group go-carting activity.

De-stigmatising mental health problems is so important, which is why Alice Howarth from the Skeptics with a K podcast is my hero for speaking about her experiences in this episode (about half-way through the audio):

Trigger warning for depression, anxiety and self-harm (that’s an example of a consideration – people can actually spiral when unexpectedly exposed to triggers for memories or emotions relating to their past trauma. Scoffing or ridiculing trigger warnings indicates you haven’t yet learned to be considerate, but keep working at it, you’ll get there).

Skeptics with a K is a podcast dedicated to the promotion of critical thinking and scientific skepticism. It definitely contains swearing, but we are adults so…

The US Government poses the greatest threat to US trade, all for the illusion of increased security

The United States Government has thrown a cat amongst the pigeons with its ramped up forced data exposure policies affecting travellers to their country. There are reports that increasing numbers of travellers are being forced to unlock and hand over their electronic devices to Border Control agents, who may then download an unencrypted clone of your device’s stored data to store and interrogate at will, potentially forever.

This practice is akin to forcing you to hand over all your email history, all your passwords to your cloud storage and social media accounts, all your phone’s stored location tracking data and call history, all your photos, your complete contact list (which can be used to build a profile of all your associations), and of course access to your finances if you have banking apps installed.

Now many of these things are available ​to law enforcement in the US anyway, but in pretty much every other circumstance these agencies have to show due cause and convince a judge to issue a warrant before they are allowed to access them.

Even with such a warrant, as recent cases involving the US government and Apple Inc. have shown, device encryption can pose a significant hurdle for law enforcement to overcome, so mass surveillance of the citizenry, at least in terms of the information they choose to encrypt, is somewhat difficult.

I’m sure I’m not alone in deciding that I’d avoid travelling to the US for business or pleasure, because this invasion of privacy affects us more than the threats they use to justify the invasion. It’s just absurd for the US government think it is acceptable to force travelers to unlock their electronic devices and hand them over whilst border control agents download all your data, all your apps with access tokens to your social media and cloud storage accounts, which they can keep and data mine apparently for as long as they want.

The policy is even at odds with existing US laws protecting various privileged information, such as Attorney-client privilege, HEPAA laws protecting medical patient records, and Federal laws about classified information which make it an offence for the person with security clearance to divulge classified information to an uncleared individual, opening both parties to criminal prosecution. Journalist are normally protected from being forced to divulge their sources, but not so when crossing a US boarder.

There’s also the issue of how this information and power is handled by Border Control. What stops an agent with a grudge from planting incriminating evidence whilst your phone is out of your control, because they took some offense at, let’s say, your loose morals because you were a woman travelling alone and showing too much cleavage for their conservative Christian sensibilities? Or because you’re from an ethnic group they don’t like? Or they don’t like your face/clothes/smell/hair? Or from selling your employer’s immensely valuable plans for their new design to your competition? How would the link to the Border Control agent even be established in court, if not divulged by the competitor when sued, especially since then they have rights and can’t be forced to divulge where the information came from?

What protections are in place to ensure your data they store indefinitely is protected from hackers, or the even more likely threat from government employees with huge power, but comparatively low income? Here’s a handy but depressing list of data breaches which are known to have occured, and as you can see, there are several Government agencies listed including the Department of Homeland Security no less.

Even US citizens with 4th and 5th Amendment rights have to give them up when crossing US border. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Federal employee with classified government data, as seen recently when a Jet Propulsion Laboratories employee was allegedly detained by Border Control agents because he initially refused to hand over his unlocked device which potentially contained classified information and access to various JPL and NASA systems. Imagine being put in the position where you have to break company policies, or worse, Federal Law, before as a citizen you will be permitted reentry to your own country?

Recommendations include leaving all your devices at home, which is absurd for business travellers, and hugely inconvenient for everyone. You might also wipe your devices and restore their data from cloud backup once you reach your destination, but this could be highly expensive depending on your access to a low cost, fast internet connection (a nirvana for international travellers, seldom seen but spoken of in hushed, awed tones amongst seasoned travellers). At best it’s another massive inconvenience.

But the kicker is that terrorists or criminals can so easily avoid disclosing information this way by traveling with clean devices, keeping their special terrorist or criminal secrets in cloud systems. Inconvenient to the terrorist for sure – but they have special motivation and much more to lose.
The US government is the USA’s greatest threat to commerce. Businesses talk about being “easy to do business with” as a priority because customers will go elsewhere if the cost of transaction is too high.

Well America, these costs are too high.

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