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One of the most divisive questions in workplace mental health relates to employees sharing their details in the workplace whether through a sick note or in a conversation with their supervisor or human resources.  In the context of diversity, equity and inclusion, mental health disclosure implies a slam dunk win for employees and employers, a way to open opportunities for accommodation and better understanding.  The “me too” movement and public mental health campaigns have brought mental health into mainstream workplace dialogue.  Having worked in this realm for 25 years, it is exciting to experience this shift in acceptance and willingness to talk about it. That is a good thing; however, talking about mental health at work, while a great step towards reducing stigma, needs some consideration and boundaries.

Mental health committees:

Many organizations are forming mental health awareness committees and hosting events meant to normalize the conversation.  This is well intentioned and talking about it is encouraged as a way of normalizing our mental health experiences.  However, things can go sideways if the other elements needed to protect individuals from discrimination, mis-information and poorly informed managers and coworkers are not in place.  Knowing what will happen next after disclosure can inform everyone and must be part of the workplace conversation.   What protections are in place to prevent that disclosure from impacting negatively on the person’s career and their relationships on their team and to protect the organization should they inadvertently breach privacy rules?  Workplace initiatives to destigmatize mental health can be impactful in good and bad ways.

 

Some interesting recent research facts:

  • Mental health disclosure improves accommodation and can improve trust within workplace relationships. The reasons for disclosure seem related to whether the disclosure is helpful or not.  For example, disclosing because a person trusts their supervisor and feels supported leads to better outcomes.  Disclosing out of fear or deciding to not share that a mental health condition exists can lead to poor outcomes such as leaving work.
  • Many human resources staff are not trained in mental health and/or disability management related to mental health. While this is not true for everyone, a recent broad research project revealed significant knowledge gaps, and let’s not point the finger at human resources, they have too many areas of expected expertise and are often not aware of the professionals who can help them
  • Sharing your mental health diagnosis can reduce your manager’s trust in you, your perceived commitment, and increase their worry about aggressiveness
  • Many managers are not confident in their role and the rules around mental health and disclosure

 

Here are some tips to consider:

For individuals:

  • Consider why you think you should share your private details. It is common to feel disloyal, distrustful or dishonest to hold back information; however, your employer is generally not entitled to ask or know specific details about your health.  It is often possible to receive accommodations and support without sharing the specifics of your health condition such as your diagnosis.
  • It is also common to feel a responsibility to share your experience with others to encourage people to seek help if they are struggling. Sharing your details for this reason can be important for you but it is not an expectation.  Be sure your decision is well thought out and one you will still be pleased with many months in the future.
  • What protection do you have from misuse of the private information you are considering sharing? Are there policies in your workplace that tell you what happens to the information you share?  Will the information be shared with future supervisors or in your file?  Ask questions before you share.
  • How much information is needed to achieve what you need? Often informing your workplace that you are dealing with a mental health concern is enough; there are degrees of sharing that can be tailored to your specific situation.
  • Once you share, you can’t un-share. Be clear on your rights to privacy and confident that sharing will help your organization better support you to stay at work or return to work.
  • Sharing that you are experiencing mental health challenges can create opportunity for accommodation and support that can be simple and keep you working.

 

For organizations:

  • Train your supervisors and managers to know their roles and responsibilities related to workplace mental health. This practice alone can greatly improve the likelihood of people asking for support early; thus, improving mental health outcomes and the associated attendance issues.
  • Consider mental health policies that clearly describe processes and next steps if staff identify mental health challenges. Policies should include your organization’s values that relate to the topic and specific details of what happens when a person discloses.
  • Share your policies widely and often so everyone knows. Currently, roughly half of your workforce is experiencing mental health challenges, do they know what supports you offer and what happens if they ask for support?
  • Equip everyone in your workplace with the knowledge and ability to make adjustments that support people getting access to help and accommodation that can make the difference between staying at work or going off on medical leave.
  • Mental health accommodations are often simple, low or no cost, and short term. Make it simple to access to prevent people having to leave work to get healthier.
  • Ensure that workplace campaigns, projects, initiatives consider specific psychological risks that are unique to your workplace (culture) and the work (occupational risks).

 

It is such an exciting time to work in workplace mental health with the pace of attitude change and increasing interest to better support people to thrive at work.  I encourage everyone to get comfortable about your own mental health, learn what keeps and gets you healthy, and how to do that in your workplace too.  Many workplaces foster healthy sharing about mental health and a collective interest and effort to support each other’s good mental health.  Whether you decide to Share or not to Share, let me know what you found helpful with this article.