ELEANOR HALL: While Australians have become more open to talking about depression and anxiety in recent years, employees still face stigma in the workplace.
A survey of 100 workers from around Australia found that when they told their employer about their mental illness, they overwhelmingly suffered for it.
With one in five Australians experiencing some form of mental illness each year, advocates say it’s in the interests of employers and employees to change that.
As Anna Vidot reports.
ANNA VIDOT: Mental health advocates say 70 per cent of people who have a mental illness want to work, and that stable employment can be an important part of their recovery.
But despite that, they say too many Australian workplaces aren’t doing a very god job of supporting employees who’re dealing with mental health issues.
Tasha Broomhall runs mental health consultancy Blooming Minds, and she’s got a very simple message.
TASHA BROOMHALL: Well the evidence is that you’re likely to have lots of people in your team who have mental illness. Because we have 1 in 5 Australians a year with mental illness, almost 50 per cent of us, so 45 per cent of us in our lifetime will have mental illness.
So the reality is, get over it, stop being worried about it, it’s already happening, and actually have some strategies and some approaches that are more effective and more respectful.
ANNA VIDOT: In a recent survey of more than 100 people working across the public, private and non-profit sectors, Tasha Broomhall found that just 40 per cent of people with a mental illness chose to tell their employer about it. Of those people, 85 per cent said disclosing their mental illness prompted a negative reaction.
TASHA BROOMHALL: That’s really worrying from my perspective, that the vast majority of people who had the courage to say, hey this is affecting me and I need some support, had really negative reactions to that.
Often people describe that bullying increased or harassment increased. There were some people who said that they felt that anything went wrong in the team was blamed on their mental health issues and their disclosure.
Through a lot of our work we had expected that people would be getting better responses than that, and that was a big surprise to us.
ANNA VIDOT: Tasha Broomhall says the aim isn’t to force everyone with an experience of mental illness to tell their employer about it, it’s about making it safe for people to disclose their illness if it’s relevant to do so. And she says Australian employers have a legal obligation, including under anti-discrimination law, to make sure that’s the case.
TASHA BROOMHALL: If you’ve got a staff member who has mental health issues and it affects their capacity to function, as a workplace you’re required to look at the possibility of what’s called reasonable adjustments, which is putting in place strategies that might assist the person to maintain their employment, but it has to be reasonable to the business. So it could be things like, for example, if I think of someone I was working with who had mild to moderate depression was on anti-depressant medication which meant that in the mornings she was really foggy and she found the mornings really hard to get up and get to work, so one of the adjustments we put in place was for her work hours to shift from a nine to five, to a 10 to six.
It was a reasonable adjustment because her work didn’t require that it was done during set hours. If she was a customer service representative that might not have been so easy, that might not have been a reasonable adjustment.
ANNA VIDOT: Tasha Broomhall says improving conditions for people experiencing mental illness is in the interests of employers too.
he says that each year in Australia, 6 million days are lost to absenteeism because of depression alone. Twelve million more were lost in presenteeism, when someone goes to work but isn’t really functioning.
And a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers this year found that for every dollar spent on mental health strategies, employers can expect $2.30 in return.
Tasha Broomhall warns that simply putting up awareness posters in the break room isn’t enough.
TASHA BROOMHALL: You need to integrate these ideas into people’s behaviour. You can’t just have a policy but people need to actually be able to then develop the skills to be able to have appropriate conversations in the workplace, to not step outside of their boundaries. But also to design and implement adjustments where required.
ANNA VIDOT: She says the good news is some employers are already making meaningful changes to support people dealing with mental illness.
TASHA BROOMHALL: An organisation recently that we’ve just started working with has put in place amazing supports for a staff member who’s living with ongoing schizophrenia and has a couple of months off work every year. And they did that with nothing else other than the will to support a human being that they value, which is just gorgeous. So I think that we have some light being shown and the ways being paved by people doing some great jobs but there is also a lot more that the vast majority of organisations can do.
ELEANOR HALL: That’s mental health consultant Tasha Broomhall speaking to Anna Vidot. And you can join the ABC’s conversation during Mental Health Week. Check out our Mental As project online.