Depression: does your boss really need to know?

Oct 07, 2015

As published in national newspapers today beyondblue CEO Georgie Harman's opinion piece discusses how managers often remain ignorant about depression and anxiety in the workplace.

 

With so much information now available about mental health, it's astonishing how often managers remain ignorant about depression and anxiety in the workplace.

To tell or not to tell: it is a question confronting thousands of Australians each day as they balance work responsibilities and the sometimes disabling thoughts and symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

Being productive and making a contribution makes us feel good about ourselves, whether in paid work or volunteering. Good work nourishes us and is often a major factor in a person's recovery from mental illness.

Poor mental health is likely to affect one in five Australian employees and they bring all aspects of themselves – physical and mental health – to work every day.

Most days they will be highly productive, engaged and committed. Occasionally they might need time out or some flexibility. It's only natural: we all have good days and bad days, sick kids and dental appointments.

Yet how many of us would admit to bosses and colleagues that we are experiencing a mental illness? Or that our productivity is slipping because of depression? Or that workloads and schedules are causing anxiety?

Far easier to explain sickies with a physical illness – a migraine or even the man flu – than say depression weighed so heavily you couldn't ditch the doona or anxiety blocked your exit at the front door.

At worst, discussing your mental health in the workplace can be a matter of prosperity versus poverty, a productive career contributing to Australia's economy versus a disability support pension, even "having a life" versus a potentially early death, sometimes by suicide.

The decision to tell the truth can be positively life-changing, but it is not a step lightly taken.

Sometimes, sadly, it is better not to tell.

This may seem an unlikely message from the CEO of beyondblue​ as we campaign for an end to discrimination. But we need to get real here: while I believe change is happening and more and more business leaders and employers are signing up to a genuine cultural shift, I still too often hear stories of people's careers taking a nosedive when they reveal they have a mental health condition. Or that they are now viewed as no longer a reliable employee. Or they are invited to resign.

It astonishes me how the facts around depression and anxiety regularly elude otherwise well-informed, successful managers.

Research shows mental health is the issue Australian workers feel most uncomfortable discussing with their managers. Little wonder when fear – served with a generous scoop of ignorance – breeds suspicion in our workplaces.

Staff admitting mental health issues are too commonly viewed as workers' compensation claims-in-waiting, as no longer trustworthy or as suddenly unpredictable.

And it seems the higher up the career ladder you happen to be when you disclose a mental illness, the greater the risk you run.

It shouldn't be like this. Truth is, we all pay the price of poor mental health practices in the workplace and if senior managers are unable to have an honest discussion around these issues they may find the losses one day outweigh the profits, personally and professionally.

Research shows that six million working days are lost each year because of untreated depression and each person experiencing depression takes three to four days off every month.

This changes drastically if an employee feels they are in a mentally healthy workplace.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers 2014 report on the impact of employees' mental health on productivity, participation and compensation claims, found these conditions cost Australian employers at least $10.9 billion a year, compared to just $146 million in compensation claims.

Investing in mental health at work makes sense. It is as important to business success as a reliable bookkeeper, a friendly banker, OH&S compliance and KPIs.

Many companies are trying to change, talking openly about mental health and suicide prevention, tackling stigma and discrimination. Showing real leadership. Initiatives that are holistic and involve people at all levels are far more likely to achieve change than "top down" or "bottom up" efforts. We all have a part to play. 

There's no right or wrong answer to whether you should tell people at work about your depression or anxiety and if you're having treatment. It's an intensely personal decision.

Whether you do, can depend on how much your condition affects your role, what support you have outside the workplace and relationships with your colleagues.

Everybody's experience is different and they are the ones best placed to judge whether they should tell their boss or not.

You are not legally required to say anything unless your condition has the potential to endanger yourself or your colleagues.

My advice to any employee considering speaking up is to plan the conversation. Rehearse with somebody close to you what you intend to say. Protecting your privacy is important so know how much or how little you want to disclose. Use general terms rather than specifics, if you think that will help.

You might hand your boss an information sheet about depression or anxiety and possibly a letter from your healthcare professional and talk through material together.

But remember your employer can only do so much. Good mental health begins with each of us taking responsibility for our own health and wellbeing and creating a mentally healthy workplace is in everyone's best interest.

Good work, meaningful and purposeful work – something that gets us out of bed in the morning – is essential to mental health and emotional wellbeing.

I hope for the day we can all take responsibility for our own mental health and discuss how we really feel – honestly and frankly.

At beyondblue​ that is what we're working towards. In fact, I hope one day we no longer even need beyondblue.


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Georgie Harman headshot

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