In an ideal world, staff mental health would be as openly talked about as an injury. In fact, you would be forgiven for thinking that mental health issues are
willingly accommodated within the workplace.
Are mental health issues accepted in the workplace? No, there are still plenty of stigmas surrounding depression.
Take Jen, a 37 year old program director in a large not for profit company, from Miami. On the outside it looked like she had everything going for her.
She was in a stable relationship, had worked hard to get the job of her dreams, had great friends and great health but suffered failing mental health.
Six months into her job, Jen began to display the common symptoms of major depressive disorder and went to see her doctor.
She’d lost motivation, felt extremely tired but also suffered insomnia, felt guilty all the time, sunk into a dark and depressive mood, lost her positive outlook on life to the point where she was questioning her own sanity.
Jen began taking anti-depressants, which offered some relief from the black mood but her anxiety increased as her work drive began to falter.
“Some days it was almost impossible to go to work. I’d drag myself in and paint a smile on my face even though my eyes looked dead. On the days I couldn’t drag myself out of bed, I took a sick day.”
Jen never explained to her employer that her ‘sick day’ was because she suffered from depression in spite of her doctor advising her to do so by saying,
‘Depression is a medical condition just like diabetes’.
Although Jen agreed with him, she never told her company that she had depression, even though she would have told them that she had diabetes.
“I didn’t want my colleagues looking at me with sympathy or questioning that what I said might be influenced by my depression.”
Jen’s concerns were valid. Although the acceptance of mental health issues in the workplace is getting better, there is still hesitation around people revealing their depression for fear of being seen as weak,
being side-lined by colleagues or worrying
about losing their job.
What are the figures for lost workdays due to depression? A lot more than you think
According to MIND, the UK mental health charity, Britons took 137 million sick days and of these, of these, 15.8 million days were for a stated mental health issue.
That’s 11.5% of people stating that they were suffering from depression, anxiety or stress symptoms.
However, the figure is likely to be much higher as many people will not admit, like Jen, to mental health being the reason for their sick day and will often give another reason for taking time off.
How much of the depression is caused by work?
This is another worrying trend with the figures for lost workdays due to work-related illness being much more significant.
When we look at some statistics from the UK government’s Health and Safety Executive, in the UK, there were 31.2 million working days lost in 2016/17[i]. Out of that 31.2 million, 12.5 million of those lost working days were due to stress, depression or anxiety caused by the workplace.
That’s a whopping 40% of lost workdays due to metal health issues.
The UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development reported[ii] that 44% of employers have seen an increase in reported mental health problems from one year to the next.
The figures just keep growing and which the law has had to change to accommodate those people who are suffering whilst at work.
What legal rights do I have if I disclose my depression? It’s still not clear cut.
The current law is ambiguous when it comes to identifying what rights you have as an employee with depression. This is my interpretation as to where the law stands but it’s not meant as a definitive guide.
In the UK, employees with disabilities are protected by the Equality Act 2010. In the US it’s the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Amendments Act of 2008.
They both mean that employers cannot treat a disabled employee less favourably because of their disability, their symptoms or any other reason relating to their disability.
In addition, employers must ensure that their disabled staff are not disadvantaged by their non-disabled colleagues by implementing ‘reasonable adjustments to the workplace’.
With depression, the problem arises when identifying whether or not it is, in fact, a disability. Those of us who’ve suffered depression know that without a doubt, it is. However, in the eyes of the law, it’s still not clear-cut.
Should I tell my employer about my depression? You have to carefully weigh up all the specifics
Deciding whether or not to disclose our depression to our employer is a bit of a gamble.
On the one hand we may want to come clean and explain that our symptoms prevent us from fulfilling our capacity to do a great job. We want to recover, who doesn’t? But we often need the support of our employers to allow us to have time off for treatment.
On the other hand, we don’t want to be stigmatised or put our job at risk.
One of the symptoms of depression is shame. Shame is when we feel bad about who we are (as opposed to guilt which is when we feel bad about something we’ve done) and dealing with stigmatism can feel shameful. For someone who suffers from depression, being stigmatised could make things worse.
What else should I consider in deciding if I should tell my employers? Look carefully at what you hope to gain.
One thing we can really ask ourselves is:
What do I hope to gain by disclosing my depression?
The question could be asked, would we disclose any other medical issue to our employer? Diabetes, for instance, is common but it’s not something that necessarily needs to be disclosed.
What may help with the decision is to look at exactly what we’d like from our employer if we choose to make them aware of our depression.
When I was depressed, I was looking for empathy from my employer but I discovered that empathy was in short supply. In hindsight, what would have worked better, was to explain where I was at and to ask for the time off I needed to get treatment (counselling at the time) and reassure them that it was worth them investing in me because I would get the support I needed to be a better employee at work.
It’s easily said but again, shame and low self worth come into play and we can’t always find the courage to speak up.
What are the financial costs of suffering depression at work? Here are some associated costs
There are numerous costs that could be associated with suffering from depression at work. Here are some of them:
Paying privately for treatment if employers don’t cover these expenses
Pay deducted for time off
Going part time whilst dealing with depressive symptoms
Allowing depression to hold us back from fulfilling our career potential
Employers reluctance to promote us due to our mental health
Of course these are assuming our employer is not supportive yet there are plenty of good companies who invest in compassionate leadership styles.
However, it’s good to be aware of these possible costs to our career.
How does depression affect my whole career? As opposed to one particular job?
For me, suffering from depression held me back in my career in ways that are difficult to quantify.
For example, I always felt like a fraud if I did well and I kept thinking I was going to be found out any time. I also suffered from extreme low self worth and didn’t believe I could make a success of my career.
Once I started getting help, I needed time off to get the treatment and that meant missing time at work.
The biggest problem I had was having an emotional breakdown aged 31 where I could barely function at all. I had to give up on a great career working for an American company based in London. I had everything an ambitious woman could want but the depression just kept chasing my tail until I broke down. I had to take a long time off for recovery.
I was lucky because I was a good saver and I had just enough to keep both my little son and me with a roof over our heads. Some people are not so lucky and if a breakdown happens, they have fewer choices.
In the bigger scheme of things, I was never able to keep a job going enough to make it to the top of the ladder, which was my dream. So, I made helping others who still suffer and writing about my experiences my new career path.
Depression is debilitating and can have a devastating effect on a life career path. In one survey[iii], the Anxiety and Depression Association of America asked which parts of their job were affected by depression. The results were as follows:
56% said performance
51% said peer to peer relationship
50% said the quality of their work
43% said their relationships with their managers
If the stigma of depression were to reduce, perhaps employers would come to realize the negative effects of having undisclosed depression within their workplace and set in place some solid policies that enabled those people who suffer to speak up and get the help they need.
Is help for depression in the workplace getting better? Yes but we need more change
Although the law is beginning to take shape and help those of us who’ve suffered at work, the culture needs to change.
I wonder what impact it would have if the Chief Executive of an organisation were to come out from hiding and own up to their own mental health issues, sharing transparently about how they’re working towards overcoming it.
I think the increase in creativity and productivity would sky rocket. After all, what would it be like if we worked somewhere that acknowledged we didn’t have to be perfect to be good at our jobs? Where we could start the working day by off loading any issues we’d brought in with us knowing we had a supportive team at work?
Let’s look forward to that workspace because it’s coming.