Mental illness: what employers need to know
By Andrew Hobbs
EMPLOYEES with mental illnesses should not be treated any differently than a worker with a disability would be, Chairman of the Mental Health Foundation Australia (MHFA) Jim Goodin said.
Speaking with Health & Safety Bulletin for World Mental Health Day, Dr Goodin said that in his experience, many people with diagnosed mental illnesses did not feel free to disclose this to employers, out of fear that it would count against them.
But with MHFA stating that each year one-in-five Australians experienced a mental illness, Dr Goodin said it accounted for a large portion of the population.
“Mental health is not in itself an impediment to someone doing a good job or doing good work in their particular occupation,” he said.
“Yet many people with a mental health issue are frozen out as soon as they acknowledge or admit that they have a mental health condition. That is a ‘no-no’ in terms of people hiring them.
“Education is needed… It’s this notion that people with a mental health issue are scary, are unpredictable – that’s not the case,” he said.
In situations where employees did disclose a mental health issue, Dr Goodin recommended employers discuss with them how the illness affects them and how it impedes their ability to do the job – and then work to find a way around it.
“You would look at areas that would, in consultation or negotiation, set that disability off and try to avoid those areas or reduce them,” he said.
This might be in the form of employees needing to take days off to deal with their illness, or needing to avoid certain tasks or situations.
“That in turn would mean that there would be a vastly lower cost to the community in terms of sick days and all sorts of issues,” he said.
Dr Goodin also warned against using knowledge of an employee’s mental health condition to explain general workplace grievances.
“You become the cause of all the problems because you have a mental illness, but it might be much simpler – it might be a disagreement along personality lines that might happen in any workplace, but the mental health issue becomes an argument for blame or a means of persecuting a person.”
Improving education about these issues, ranging from managing employees with high anxiety or depression to disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar syndrome, was key to finding a way forward, he said.
“It is really a matter of reasonableness and cooperation from both parties. You can’t do that if it is a hidden condition – if the employee feels as soon as they acknowledge that they have this condition it means the end of their career, as people feel at the moment,” he said.
“I suppose it is about bringing out the humanity in people and having a bit more compassion, as we would for any other disability.”
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