Opinion | 1 September 2015

How to speak to your employer about mental illness

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Talk about mental illness

Long ago — maybe I was 19 — I walked out of a job on the second day and just never went back. It was a temp job, entering data into a machine and then checking the data and then entering more data. I was being paid $18 an hour, which was pretty good at the time.

But on that second day, my brain was not cooperating. From the moment I had woken in the morning, I had been battling against it. One foot in front of the other, take the steps, get on the train, get off the train, walk down the street. Step-step-step. Up the lift. Good morning, nice to see you. Yes, I’m new here. Step-step-step. I sat at the computer for an hour before anxiety took over and I fled, scarf and hair trailing behind me, running at the speed of light for the train to take me home.

Talking to my employer about mental illness for the first time was one of the most catastrophically terrifying things I’ve ever done—to “admit” to being someone with a mental illness. It was years after my runaway bride act. I was struggling. I knew I could be a more effective employee but I wasn’t sure how to broach it.

It was so easy to imagine my boss’s dismissal of my invisible disability. It was easy to imagine her thinking about the negative impacts on my work, on other staff members, on productivity and on the workplace at large. I felt that I was good at my job, and I loved the organisation, but I worried endlessly about how I might “make up for” being affected by depression and anxiety. I imagined being forced to explain it all to her, to justify feeling bad despite having no outward “signs”.

In the end, I was forced to make a decision. A work event was looming, and I didn’t feel I could participate in it. I figured I had two options: I could quit my job and run away forever, probably screaming and potentially eventually living alone on a mountain; or, I could be upfront about how I was feeling, then live alone on a mountain.

I stewed over it for weeks before making an appointment with the HR Manager. I sat in her office and told her all about my mental illness: what it meant for me, and what it meant for her. I outlined my ideas. She outlined her ideas. We reached a mutually agreeable conclusion and the meeting ended.

My relief was immediate, like being released from a cage. I finally felt able to focus on my work instead of on my fear.

5 things to do when approaching your employer

These are my top five suggestions for speaking to your employer about your mental health:

  • Have a clear outcome in mind. Do you want to change your working arrangements? Do you need to take personal leave for a period? Are you concerned about the quality of your work? Do you just want to make your employer aware?
  • Have a plan. If you are going in to negotiate a new working arrangement to accommodate your health requirements, know what you want that to look like. Is it a day a week from home? Is it every day from home? Is it dropping your hours to two days?
  • Hopefully your employer will be receptive, but remember that mental illness still carries plenty of stigma. Your boss might not understand what you’re experiencing, and might not want to learn. Awareness is a vital part of reducing this stigma—do you know what you’re going to say to them if they shut you down?
  • Know your rights. Mental health issues are just as valid a concern as physical illness. Depending on your working arrangement, you may be entitled to sick leave, personal leave, reduced hours or a working allowance for treatment.
  • Approach your employer with collaboration in mind. It costs money to replace staff. Besides which, you’re awesome and they’re lucky to have you. This is a group effort. A bit of give and take. How can you help each other?

It’s easy to forget that one in five people in Australia are affected by mental illness. Twice I’ve spoken to an employer about anxiety or depression and they have said, “Oh, my sister has anxiety”, or “I also have depression”. Your employer may surprise you.

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