Mental illness in the workplace

Churchill suffered from the “black dog” of depression, Munch from panic attacks and Beethoven from bipolar disorder. Mental ill health is nothing new, nor does it stop people from being leaders in their field.

“Nervous breakdown”, “loony”, “addled brain”, and “lush” may have been replaced by terms such as “depressive episode”, “mentally ill”, “spaced-out” and “alcoholic”, but mental health issues are still prevalent in our workplaces.

According to the Mental Health Foundation it’s likely that one in six employees in New Zealand are suffering from a mental illness at any one time. Take a look around your workplace – if you share it with five people, chances are that at least one of them has a mental health issue. Maybe that person is you.

Beating the stigma of mental illness

Mental illness – especially if left undiagnosed and untreated – can impact on a person’s ability to do their job. And yet in too many workplaces, the stigma attached to mental ill health means that it is kept secret or ignored.

Someone suffering from mental illness may well get treated differently than they would if they suffered from a physical ailment. A person turning up to work with a broken arm can usually expect support and understanding from managers and co-workers. A person turning up with a box of Efexor (depression medication) is more likely to be treated with suspicion and awkwardness.

Tide turning

That’s not to say the tide isn’t turning. Government advertising campaigns showing well-known and respected public figures talking about their own struggles with mental illness is hopefully helping make it more acceptable.

Certainly there are plenty of Employment Relations Authority cases featuring claims that work has caused an employee to suffer from stress, depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems.

These admissions of mental ill health tend to be at the end of employment relationships, however.

At the beginning of the relationship, job applicants wanting to present their best side are more likely to keep quiet about any existing mental health issues. There is still a commonly held belief – whether real or perceived – that the stigma of mental illness will stymie a person’s chances of being offered a job.

Pre-employment medical questions

There have been at least a couple of recent Authority cases where a job seeker has lied when asked whether they suffered from any mental health condition that could affect their ability to do the job safely.

One case involved a fire fighter and the other case involved a security guard in a high risk environment at night. Both employees were dismissed after their employer became aware of their mental health issues (one tried to commit suicide, the other was signed off work as unfit by a mental health team).

In both cases, the Authority rejected the claim that the pre-employment medical questions were illegal and discriminatory. For both roles, mental health was relevant to whether the person could safely perform the work.

The employers were entitled to assess whether they could take reasonable steps to reduce the risk, as provided by section 29(1) of the Human Rights Act 1993. They could only do that by seeking information from the employees.

Both men were obliged to truthfully answer the questions asked and failed in their duty of good faith under the Employment Relations Act 2000 by not doing so. Both failed in their unjustified dismissal claims.

Help for employers

For employers who want to tackle mental health issues, and the impact they can have on productivity and the wellbeing of staff, help is out there.

In October 2012, Mindful Employer NZ  launched its charter aimed at helping employers to improve awareness and skills for dealing with mental health issues in the workplace.

The scheme offers employers advice on mental health issues and subsidised mental health awareness training for staff.

Mindful Employer NZ was inspired by the United Kingdom Mindful Employer initiative. The programme is already well established in the United Kingdom and Australia.

Mental illness will always be an issue for employers, unless their staff consists solely of robots.

So it’s in everyone’s interest to have a workplace culture that encourages awareness, understanding, and support for the one in six employees who are, right now, suffering from mental illness.

Related texts

  • Beating Stress At Work – an evergreen, easy-to-read practical guide by David Brown, psychologist and ergonomist.
  • Mental Health Law in New Zealand – a guide to the interaction between the mental health system and the law in New Zealand for the mental health profession, psychiatric social workers, caregivers, advocacy groups, lawyers, and medical, social science and law students.

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