Should we admit to depression and anxiety in the workplace?

Should we admit to depression and anxiety in the workplace?

By Liz Lockhart

As I sat sipping my cup of tea before starting work this morning, I was taken by a piece of news on the BBC’s early morning news program.  Ruby Wax was on the couch talking about her personal battle with depression.  There were also two individuals, (one of whom wanted to remain anonymous,) who talked of their own experiences when admitting to colleagues their own depression and stress.

In one case the employee was bullied, discriminated against and forced out of her supermarket job.  In the other the person, a partner in the business, was surprised to find empathy, encouragement and kindness. 

Should we let our employers know if we feel stressed, anxious or depressed?  This really got me thinking as I have personal experience of just this.

Case study

Meet Liz fifteen years ago... I was open about my ‘anxiety’ condition in one job which led to being treated badly and subsequently kept very quiet about it in another position.  I was in no way ashamed but I resented being treated so differently once I opened up.  My anxiety was not who I was, it was what I suffered from and I didn’t enjoy being treated with ‘kid gloves’ or considered less capable of doing an excellent job just because of it.

So should we hide?

Ruby Wax admitted that when she first suffered from depression her husband hid it from her children and friends which was something that they both decided was best.  The exposure in the press about her mental health almost came about by mistake but now she is glad that it did and works tirelessly to challenge the stigmas attached to all mental health issues.

This very subject was featured in The Independent yesterday.  In an article by Nina Lakhani, it says that workers feel unable to disclose mental health problems to colleagues or bosses because discrimination is rife and openness discouraged. 

Who is affected?

  • Research which is to be published today says that as many as one in four workers have experienced discrimination or witnessed colleagues being discriminated against at work because they suffered from a mental health problem, according to a new survey by the charity Mind.

Lakhani went on to say that mental illness is:

  • The most common health problem to affect people of working age. 
  • One in six suffer from severe stress, depression or addiction at any one time. 
  • The financial effects alone are startling with a cost to UK businesses of more than £26bn last year, according to the Centre for Mental Health (CMH).

So why is it this way?

Amy Whitelock of Mind said ‘Mental health problems remain the elephant in the room.  Poor communication fuels the problem because if your boss or manager doesn’t even ask how you are, how could you possibly approach them about anything more sensitive?  There is still a culture of denial which means employees are afraid to speak out because they fear discrimination or being thought of as weak, and employers are afraid to broach the subject in case they make things worse’.

Workers are more comfortable taking time off for physical illness than depression anxiety because of the fear of being bullied or isolated.  This means that thousands go to work every day despite feeling mentally under par, costing the economy £16bn a year in underperformance or ‘presenteeism’ according to the CMN.  Its new report ‘Managing Presenteeism’, to be launched later this month will show employers how to reduce the burden through early detection and better support for mental health problems.

Andy Bell, chief executive of the CMH, said ‘The openness message must come from the top, but line managers and supervisors are key, as they are the ones who will first notice if someone isn’t performing.  Disclosure is incredibly difficult but the onus is clearly with the employers and the business case is clear.’

Whilst I think this message is to be applauded I still feel that it is unlikely to change things for a long, long time.  This is unlikely to encourage employers to hire anyone who has an existing mental health condition or to tolerate underperformance or absence from work as a result of it. Compare this if we may to physical ill health and we can see just how far we have to go to educate employers and the general public.

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