How comfortable are you discussing your health at work? If you were coping with an illness, would you feel at ease telling your boss? What if the issue wasn’t a physical problem but a mental one?
Although approximately 44 million adults in America are dealing with some form of mental illness, many are hesitant to disclose their conditions to employers. In fact, despite the fact that half of all employees in a recent survey said they would want to help a coworker coping with mental illness, nearly four out of 10 wouldn’t disclose their own mental health problem to a manager.
Why is mental illness a secret?
The study, published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that of the 38 percent of employees who would not confide in their manager, more than half were afraid the confession would affect their careers. Other reasons for not disclosing a mental health issue included observing the bad experiences of others who had come forward, and the fear of losing friends.
Mental health issues can profoundly impact employees both personally and professionally. Survey respondents who did choose to disclose their illness at work said key factors in their decision included a positive relationship with their manager and supportive organizational policies. Although it’s against the law for employers to inquire about mental illness, there are crucial steps that those in leadership positions can take to ensure a safe working environment that doesn’t stigmatize mental health issues.
According to a 2007 CDC report, even though the vast majority of all respondents agreed that treatment can benefit those with mental health issues, only 25 percent of adults who actually suffered mental health symptoms believed others would be caring and sympathetic toward them. This insecurity and fear of stigma can impact a person’s decision to seek care, and create a major barrier to treatment. Ideally, every office should offer supportive policies and resources that empower and enable employees to seek help if necessary, without judgment or fear of repercussions.
What can employers do to help?
Unless an employee feels comfortable disclosing his or her mental illness at work, it can be difficult to seek and receive treatment. While the ultimate decision lies with the employee, employers can take some important steps to foster a welcoming, judgment-free work environment. Here are some ways higher-ups can help:
- Facilitate positive, open relationships between managers and co-workers. Invest in properly training managers to be compassionate, empathetic, and open, and encouraging coworkers to be supportive of one another.
- Lead by example. If you encourage workers to balance work life and personal life, do the same. A Harvard global study of 19,000 employees found that only a quarter believed their boss lived a balanced and sustainable lifestyle. Those employees were 52 percent more engaged and 77 percent more satisfied at work.
- Offer work-from-home days. It can often be easier to book appointments with a therapist during the workday, so allowing employees to work from home can enable them to get the help they need. Companies like Facebook allow employees to have a regular work-from-home day that isn’t Friday. While flexible Fridays are better than nothing, having a midweek day at home can enable employees to schedule medical appointments more easily because there is typically more availability.
- Consider offering flexible work hours if telecommuting won’t work. Allow employees to come in late or leave early to grant them the opportunity to schedule appointments when necessary and not worry about absences compromising their position. And avoid scheduling meetings first thing in the morning or at the very end of the day.
- Offer good mental health benefits—and not just mental health insurance coverage, but good out-of-network insurance for psychotherapy. Because of the way that the health insurance industry works, most private practice therapists can’t afford to take insurance because of low reimbursement. Negotiating on behalf of employees for excellent out-of-network benefits will enable employees to seek out the best specialists.
- Allow employees to put tax-free money away to use for mental health services. This can help make therapy more accessible, and helps employees feel better supported at work.
- Empower your human resources department to help. Make sure HR has a list of therapists to refer employees to. Consider negotiating special rates with therapists for your employees.
- Consider providing on-site mental health services during the workday. Offering appointment times during the lunch hour can help employees get the support they need and minimize the amount of time away from work.