Spilling the beans to an understanding employer may help to improve your health and your career.
When corporate executive Michelle* was struggling with a particularly difficult episode of depression she decided, after many years of staying silent, to discuss the issue with her manager.
“I chose to do that because it was apparent that my performance was suffering and I wanted my employer to know why – that it wasn’t just me being slack,” she says. “By that stage I was in a very senior role in the organisation and I had a good relationship of trust with my supervisor.”
Michelle says her manager was very understanding, providing support to help her recover from the episode as well as ongoing flexibility to manage her health. Everything ticked along just fine until Michelle’s manager left the organisation and it became clear her replacement resented the arrangement.
“She went behind my back and constantly asked colleagues and people who reported to me whether I was up to the job and whether my health was impacting negatively on them,” says Michelle. “Over a two-year period that level of undermining became a pattern of bullying and every time I took a sick day it was reported as masking an underlying problem.”
Unsurprisingly, Michelle eventually changed jobs and decided against disclosing her condition to her new employer. So what’s the best approach if you too are affected by depression: spill the beans to your boss or keep it to yourself?
Despite increased awareness of depression – which affects about one million Australians each year – thanks to initiatives like R U OK? Day, experts say deciding to disclose a mental health condition to your employer is very much a personal choice.
Despite these rules and regulations, stigma is still a significant concern. Mental health remains taboo in many Australian workplaces, and research shows that 22 per cent of people have witnessed mental illness-related discrimination in the workplace while 35 per cent say they will never disclose a mental illness to their employer.
Employees aren’t legally required to tell their employer about mental health conditions – unless the condition has the potential to endanger safety – and Arvanitis says in some situations it can be wise to keep quiet.
“There are some obvious concerns that [disclosing] might impact on your ability to stay in the job or it might be that you’re concerned that you’ll be overlooked for promotion or it might limit your career,” he says. “In some instances, it might not be helpful to disclose because the employer just wouldn’t understand or may have some uneducated or stigmatised attitudes around mental health and mental illness.”
Dr Barnes says workplaces are becoming more tuned in to the needs of people affected by mental illness, but ultimately the decision comes down to your individual workplace. “How supportive do you believe your workplace is?” she says. “If you’ve got evidence of discrimination, then it’s probably a very bad idea to disclose.”
Michelle agrees that assessing the pros and cons will help you to make the best decision for your circumstances. “You have to weigh it up on the merits but you also have to be prepared if there’s a change of environment – where does that leave you and how do you protect yourself?” she says.
“If you want to have the conversation for really good reasons about supporting you and making you a better employee, and you believe that your employer is going to behave in an honourable way and you’re going to get support, then I think it’s worth doing.”
*Not her real name.