Why We Still Cannot Talk About Mental Illness In The Workplace

October 27th 2014

Whether we like it our not, mental illness is a part of our reality. Nearly one in five adults experience mental illness in a given year and serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings annually. 

Unfortunately, stigma is also a part of our reality. Although many people struggling with mental illness are capable and looking for work, their unemployment rates remain three to five times higher than their unaffected counterparts. It is clear that we are still not comfortable with these disorders in our offices. 

Employers admit to their own skepticism with regard to working with the mentally ill. Various surveys of US employers show that half are reluctant to hire someone with past psychiatric history. Approximately 70% are reluctant to hire someone with a history of substance abuse and almost a quarter would dismiss someone who had not disclosed a mental illness.  

For this reason, it is still incredibly difficult for employees to “come out” as sufferers in the workplace. Basically, if you want to protect your job, you would be wise to keep your problems to yourself. And that is not okay. 

Before we can change the culture of fear and judgment, we must address the roots of stigma. Why are employers so desperately afraid of getting stuck with someone who struggles with depression or OCD? Most conflate a diagnosis with an inability to be productive, largely because traits prized by many employers, such as being proactive and using critical thinking skills, are perceived to be blunted by mental illness. 

With the help of emerging medications and therapy treatments, however, recovery is also real. Individuals should not have to fear sharing their prior psychiatric struggles; in the same way others aren’t expected to conceal a battle with cancer. In fact, individuals should be able to view their successful management of the disorder as a triumph and a testament of will. Employers who really strive to maintain an honest and supportive relationship with their employees will view mental illness as simply a part of the total picture. 

The status quo is such that many patients suffering from mental illness cite a lack of sympathy that they would otherwise receive for enduring a physical affliction. “If your kid has cancer you get hugs and casserole…If your child lands in the psych ward again, there are no Hallmark cards or Bundt cakes” explains one mother in an online support forum.

The truth of the matter is that many of these disorders are so common, and the character of their symptoms so universal, that stigmatizing is plain unproductive. We must be responsible for our peers and coworkers and work with them towards rehabilitation, lest we lose some of the most talented and emotionally astute members of our workforce.

Robert Dinerstein, a law professor at American University explains how we can shift this corporate stigma,  “A company needs to tell people that, if they ever seek help for mental illness, it won’t be held against them.” Organizations, starting from the top, should express their understanding and support of those with mental illness. An all-inclusive nondiscriminatory policy should really be inclusive and not quietly marginalize those with ”unseen disabilities”. Sue Walther, executive director of the Mental Health Association, suggests that businesses could make sure employees know that insurance covers mental health care-- without having to ask. These things make the topic less taboo and can slowly change the conversation about mental health. 

"Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all." - Bill Clinton