Mental Illness on the Job: Coping With “the Workplace’s Dirty Little Secret”

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An article on PsyBlog has confirmed the sad truth: The stigma of mental illness is alive and well in the workplace.

According to a study published in The International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (IJOEM), one-third of employees would hide a mental illness from their manager for fear of damaging their careers. Participants cited losing credibility, being rejected, and becoming the object of gossip as top worries.

What’s more, 64.2 percent of employees indicated they’d be concerned about how work would be affected if a co-worker had a mental illness. Of those employees, most (42.7 percent) said their concerns would focus on safety.

A problem no one really wants to talk about

A recent article on Workforce.com characterized mental illness as “ … the workplace’s dirty little secret. Employees want to hide it and employers don’t want to hear about it.”

According to Dr. Carolyn Dewa, who conducted the study, “between 8 percent and 10 percent of the working population experiences a major depressive episode during a 30-day period.” Dr. Dewa also points out that each year 3 percent of workers take disability leave related to mental health. And experts tell us that mental health conditions cost employers between $80 and $100 billion in lost productivity each year.

A big problem, indeed.

The irony, of course, is that employees struggling with mental health issues need support, and keeping mum at work could potentially interfere with access to resources and recovery.

But, it’s also ironic, because workplace stress and other conditions at work can aggravate and/or lead to mental distress, which no one then wants to talk about.

I know a little about that.

My story

I’ve mentioned more than once that I’ve been a target of workplace bullying, and I’ve been forthright with that assertion because I want other targets to know they aren’t alone and there is hope.

In my case, the bullying got so bad I finally took a medical leave of absence, but it wasn’t a decision I came to lightly. In fact, I resisted every inch of the way — for all the reasons noted in Dr. Dewa’s study — and because I felt that going for help was proof I was weak and the bullies were winning.

Well, to make a long story short, things got so out of hand I woke up one day and realized I was barely functioning and exhibiting all the signs of depression. I also came to the realization that my family simply did not deserve to keep getting the short end of the stick because of my employer’s failures.

So I went to see my doctor, and frankly, it was one of the best decisions of my life — but also the beginning of the end for me at that job.

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I’d made my decision, and I owned it. More than that, I made my employer own it. I took every opportunity available to remind the powers that be what their negligence had cost them and me. And there’s strength in that. And freedom. There should be no shame in it.

We’re in this together

But that’s my story. Other people have other stories — stories that involve histories of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or clinical depression that’s beyond situational.

And so my point here is not to call out one horrible employer. Far from it.

  • My point is: mental health is important.
  • My point is: getting help when we need help is vital — the gossip hounds be damned.
  • My point is: whether employers like it or not, we’re in this together.

Moving forward

As with so many things, education and training are key. Dr. Dewa writes:

These study results … indicate that together, two of the most important factors related to the willingness to disclose are supportive managers and organizational policies and practices… They also highlight the need for training and supports to assist supervisors by building their confidence and abilities to manage workers with mental health problems … This also underscores the need for organization policies and practices that pro-vide managers with resources that enables them to provide accommodations without creating burdensome additional work for co-workers.”

In that Workforce article I mentioned earlier, Patrick Kennedy, a leading sponsor of the Mental Health Parity Act of 2008, is quoted as saying:

A lot of companies and HR folks are going through the same set of challenges, but in isolation. It would behoove companies to band together and begin to share best practices, like what kinds of benefits have the best evidence — and outcomes — based research behind them.”

Removing the workplace barriers

Education, training, raised awareness, and a willingness to step out of our own comfort zones would all go a long way toward removing the workplace barriers that keep people from seeking assistance when they need it the most.

And let’s face it. Sweeping this stuff under the rug isn’t making it go away (not that it ever does).

I’m certain we can do better.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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31 Comments on “Mental Illness on the Job: Coping With “the Workplace’s Dirty Little Secret”

  1. Thank you Crystal for speaking up about something that needs the light of truth. Depression is common but often, as in your case, is a result of a life stressor like bullying which can cause depression-like symptoms.
    Millions of other people are survivors of severe abuse in childhood. If they didn’t get help as children they are often left with unresolved trauma–and too often are misdiagnosed and given drugs to suppress the symptoms of their distress. Look up Developmental Trauma Disorder on the web. Effective help is developing.

  2. Good article that should be shared across the nation. People with psychiatric disabilities have much to offer. And we really are all in this together.

  3. After nearly 5 years at my last job (with good evaluations), I was “laid off” 3 days after I broke down and confessed the depths of my depression to my bosses. Basically I was fired because of a disability, but they could afford lawyers and I couldn’t. Add losing my job (and the people who I thought were my friends) to ongoing depression, and it’s been a horrible year of unemployment. It seems impossible to get past the electronic HR departments at the age of 55. I feel broken and unwanted.

    1. You are not broken and unwanted. You are human, and you have a purpose. Just by sharing this, you helped me understand that I am alone in depression and career worries. Thank you. I will be praying for you!

    2. Definitely not alone in this. This last year I had to quit
      My first demanding, successful job due to mental issues.
      I just couldn’t handle the workload anymore. I felt awful
      I felt as If I gave up, as in not succeeding. I’m a single mother
      With no help, no support from no one, only my mother who is
      Elderly. She’s my only babysitter. Well I’m still struggling with
      Anxiety, Depression, and bi polar disorder. Once again you
      Are not alone in this. God bless you and anyone else with similar
      Issues.

      1. I’m sorry Ginger. Employers have no idea what losing a job does to our already eroding self-esteem. I wish you the best!

  4. Being discriminated against is bad but mental illness distracts the other people. Whether it’s mood swings or the manipulating conversations. The supervisor sees or hears about what you’ve done or said to the mental person but they don’t see nor hear that the mental person has done or said.

    1. There are plenty of distractions in the workplace that we all have to put up with. People who chat on their cell phones all day (for all to hear), wear too much cologne, adjust the thermostat for their hot flashes, leaving old food in the refrigerator, etc. And really, calling someone who suffers from depression a “mental person” is pretty insulting.

      1. Depression isn’t a problem. Try working with someone who has borderline personality disorder AND is bipolar. Now THAT is a workplace horror!

        1. You’re right that there is a huge difference between depression and some other mental disorders in the workplace. Bipolar, depending on the person, can be difficult unmanaged…but wow, borderline personality disorder is a whole ‘nuther ballgame! Mostly, I didn’t meet their “perkiness” quotient.

          1. So sorry, TurnTide. “Perkiness” shouldn’t be a qualification, along with a college degree, or computer skills.

          2. When you’re depressed, you sometimes forget how your face looks to others. Forget to keep the happy mask on. Did the job well, have the college degree, and decent computer skills. I should have shown more gratitude to them for putting up with me when the sadness spilled over. Wish they would have warned me that my job was on the line, and pointed me towards getting help.

          3. I remember once when I was going through something personal that I came to work and I wasn’t as “perky” as people thought I should be, and I wasn’t going “out with the crew after work (mainly because it was a financial situation, and I really couldn’t afford to). One coworker DID take me aside and told me I had “better find the $ from somewhere”, because my “personal stress” was being taken as a “rejection” of my other coworkers. It was not, and I let her know to relay that to the “power that was.” She did, and the answer to that was, “I don’t give a f—-k!” So I don’t know about “showing more gratitude”. And people with that kind of mindset aren’t going to “warn” you about anything, because of their narcissistic personalities.

    2. So true, Angela. And some get physically abusive with their coworkers, too, and we are expected to be “punching bags” because “so-and-so” has issues.

  5. Crystal,

    Please do not go another 15 years perpetuating stigmas and stereotypes by literally including the words ‘dirty little secret’ and mental illness in the same conversation. Yes…quoting that ill-advised byline from Workforce.com makes you a contributor (not opponent) of stigmas and stereotypes. And citing statistics to validate your conduct does not spell advocate. NO employee with lived mental health challenges and/or experience wants to be referred to as dirty, little or secret. More importantly, those of us who support loved ones living with mental illness with unequivocally challenge individuals who lack the sensitivity to expand their knowledge, awareness and vocabulary to describe the struggle of coping with mental illness. In closing, please note that you have been stigmabusted. For your convenience, here is a link to your local Philadelphia NAMI. http://philadelphia.nami.org/ Please contact them to learn more about appropriate ways to provide education, advocacy and support to the real challenges of mental illness and recovery. And feel free to visit us whenever you are in Washington, DC.

    Cheers!
    Kristal Wortham
    Executive Director
    NAMI DC
    http://www.namidc.org

    1. “Recovery” is not real. People with serious mental illnesses can “manage” them, but they cannot “recover”, because we don’t have “cures” yet. Recovery is a feel-good term.

    2. What?! Uh huh, can’t agree with you there. However, considering the gravity of the topic, I’ll leave it at that. Thanks for the link. (I don’t think I’ll be going to Washington anytime soon, though).

  6. I worked for a mental health clinic in los angeles. Several of the employees had mental illness and caused problems. I became depressed being the brunt of their harshness.

    1. Sorry to hear that, Moon Goddess. It seems like some of the “mental health counselors” need more “counseling” than the people they are allegedly serving.

  7. I faced an issue in my career where I was facing two abusive bosses – each confessed they were bipolar and refused to take their medicine. It never ceases to amaze me why upper management allows these people to abuse the people around them and force them to step up and deal with their illnesses.

    It harms productivity, morale and creates a highly toxic environment.

    Ultimately, the bosses cause so much suffering, no one wants to work there.

    I have moved to the place after all of this that I believe that dealing with other people’s unmanaged mental illness is not on anyone’s job description and employers need to take the forefront in making sure they are not abusing the staff.

  8. I worked on a job with a supervisor who way Bipolar…… I’m here to tell you I would never again knowingly work with a Bipolar person, at least not one in a position of authority over me. You see, I was frequently the target of her moods. For whatever reason she tended to take whatever it was out on me. Dealing with this day in and day out not only adversely affected my performance on the job, but almost caused me a nervous breakdown.

    1. The same thing happened to me, G. Norick. Employees came and went….it was a revolving door. I hung in until I could retire (too early), and took a horrendous financial hit.

  9. I worked for one agency for 25 years, the last 8 years I was struggling with depression, anxiety and a couple of very negative co-workers. When new management came in and I was already on the cut list. My boss knew of my struggles and had been as helpful as possible. New management decided that I could no longer handle department budgets, AR/AP, grants as well as creating education presentations based on audience. I was moved to a different location as punishment, my hours were changed even though I explained that I had special needs children at home and needed my prior work hours. I even received warning letters for things like I forgot to put 4 hours down on my time sheet for a doctor’s appointment. My supervisor did not catch the mistake either — guess who gave me the written warning letter–my supervisor. It took my 2 1/2 years just to be able to drive by my prior place of employment. I still go out of my way to avoid people I used to work with — I had never been fired ever from any job. Depression has a way of sneaking up on you and you end up sinking before you realize you should be swimming! At 51 I was looking for work – Know how many interviews I got–1. I loved my job, but my mental health wasn’t taken serious by myself or my co-workers. I wish I knew then what I know now about anxiety and depression!

    1. I’m sorry you went through that, and I can relate. Being fired just takes the depression to a whole new level. And yeh, in the words of Rod Stewart (I’m that old) : “I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger. I wish that I knew what I know now when I was stronger.” Should have been swimming!

  10. Wow, I appreciate all the comments. I think they confirm what a complex issue mental illness is.

    And along those lines, I believe there’s a world of difference between someone with clinical depression (no other diagnosis) and someone with multiple diagnoses and/or an underlying antisocial personality/conduct disorder. I’ve unfortunately had managers who exhibited marked signs of severe character disturbance/antisocial personality disorder, so I totally get where people are coming with that.

    I’d venture to say, however, that most people in mental distress are NOT disruptive to the workplace in the sense that they’re constantly creating drama, are highly unreliable, etc., and they really do deserve our compassion, assistance, and respect.

  11. I suffer from diagnosed bi polar AND ADHD and never kept that a secret because although medicated my life was still very difficult. I was at my last employer for almost 9 years and was very good at what I did. I had a HORRIBLE, TERRIBLE, CONDESCENDING AND MEAN WOMAN that had her favorites and from day one no matter what I did or the hours I gave them I was never one of them. After 2 years with the company I transferred to a sales position in which I held and excelled at for 6 years, never brought into the office(different supervisor) never put down and I absolutely loved my job. I had 500 customers and to this day still connect with quite a few of them. Well I was in liquor sales and two months in a row I couldn’t meet quota, not a fault of mine and I had all the proof I needed to make that known but that woman stepped in, demoted me back to customer service, taking a $15,000.00 cut in pay. Within a month I had been written up 3 times for the most ridiculous reasons that on my last day of work after being called into her office for the fourth time before noon I just stood up and said, I’m done. I went to the HR supervisor who completely helped me thru the fmla and disability process. I was the second person that this had happened to because of the same woman in 6 months.

    That woman ruined my marriage, I lost friends, my children distanced themselves from me and my family barely spoke to me, I ended up having a nervous breakdown BECAUSE OF ONE EVIL WOMAN! Nothing was done to her for either case, the companies attorneys didnt want to know a thing.

    I left the company, found one of the best psychiatrists in NY and am a changed woman now. I am happy, I have energy and although my marriage ended I grew closer to everyone else than before this all started. I will be starting school soon to further my education and get out of the customer service environment.

    Mental illness isn’t a choice, its something you cant see so to others is not real. Unfortunately it runs rapid in my family, and now my daughter has been diagnosed and my son has both just like me.

    Sorry to go on an on but this is such a passionate subject for me, I just wish we could make the world understand we are not crazy, we are nothing different that a person suffering from arthritis or diabetes, we take meds and take care of ourselves, sometimes we just have flare ups.

    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to give my input.

  12. Once your labeled ur damed. It doesn’t matter the label. Because with all labels comes expectations. Good labels and bad can be as daming. For those who expected to be the best fall the hardest when then fall.

    Most of the comments about work. sound like higher class of pay. I know people who were fired for being pregnant. I know u can’t do that. But it’s not about what u know. Its about what u can prove. And ur boss has all day to do it as well as the company.

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