Employers, managers, and human resources have a big role to play creating a healthy workplace and responding proactively to an individual employee’s needs. And that’s good for both the employee and the company’s bottom line.
When taking steps to create a workplace that’s supportive of mental illness and addiction, remember, your role is not to be a counselor, but to foster a fair and respectful work culture. Your understanding and commitment to your employees’ health can be hugely encouraging for people to who need to seek help. By educating yourself, you can connect employees with appropriate health care and community supports. Keep in mind the first stop for most people should be their family doctor.
“Will I get fired because my boss thinks I’m not cut out for this job due to my mental illness?”
“Will my coworkers not want to work with me because of my addiction?”
“Will everyone judge me?”
Deciding to tell your employer
You may not want to discuss your own experience with mental illness and addictions at work for fear of what may happen—worrying people may treat you differently, or that you may even lose your job. But taking that step can in fact help your recovery. And you should know that if you are thinking about disclosing your mental illness to your employer, you have a right not to be discriminated against at work because of illness, and that includes mental illness.
Today, there are protections for people who want to disclose their illness. But the reality is that every workplace is different, and the choice to tell or not tell your employer is yours to make. Some employers will understand completely and be supportive. Others may still be learning to overcome the myths associated with mental illnesses and addictions.
When thinking about to disclosing your illness, consider whether you are getting the supports you need (at work and elsewhere) and your work environment. Know you’re protected from illness-related discrimination and also be aware of your responsibilities to your employer when it comes to balancing the need to be productive with treating and managing your illness.
Your choice and your responsibility
Having a mental illness or addiction doesn’t stop you from having goals and ambitions, or from being a valuable member of the team. And in a supportive and understanding environment, this can be achieved. But you may need to take the, sometimes difficult, step to tell your employer what you need.
Both employers and employees have responsibilities when it comes to creating healthy workplaces. Your mental illness may not affect your work. But if it does, then you need to tell your employer that you are experiencing a health issue and you need to describe what support you need to be able to work. Your employer does not need to know your diagnosis, but may require additional information from your health care provider to give you the support you require.
The benefits of speaking with your employer
- It’s the best way to find out what programs your employer has to assist people experiencing mental illness or addiction (there may be more than you think) like an Employee and Family Assistance Program or resources covered under your group insurance plan.
- You and your employer can work together to accommodate your work responsibilities while you’re working on your recovery—that may include sick leave, flexible work hours, an adjustment in responsibilities, much the same as would be given in the case of any illness.
- It can be a huge relief not to feel like you’re hiding your illness anymore.
Having the conversation
Giving some thought to what you might say may help having the conversation about your illness easier.
- Decide with whom you will speak. If the idea of having the conversation makes you nervous, choose someone you trust. That could be your supervisor, but it could also be someone in human resources.
- Ask for a private meeting. It will help you feel more comfortable and lets your employer know the matter requires discretion and confidentiality.
- Consider how you will describe your illness. If you are comfortable discussing your mental health or addiction issue, you can do so. Or you could refer more generally to having a medical condition or illness.
- Discuss how your illness affects you in your job. It may be that your illness doesn’t impact your ability to do your job. Or it may be that certain responsibilities or situations heighten your illness. Discuss how your duties can be adapted to enable you to be productive in your position while managing your illness. Employees have a responsibility to be contributing members of the team, but employers also have a responsibility to make reasonable accommodations.
- Give yourself a confidence boost by talking about your strengths and enthusiasm for your job. Sometimes our own insecurities about mental illness and addiction are stronger than anyone else’s doubt. So it’s good to reaffirm to yourself as well as others that you are good at what you do.
- Offer further information to educate your employer on your illness. You can help create a supportive workplace by providing further information that can improve your employer’s understanding.
Balancing professional and personal boundaries is often challenging, but learning how to properly support an individual with mental illness or addiction in your workplace ensures a healthier workplace for all. You can cultivate judgment-free zones for colleagues to talk, listen, and learn.
- If a colleague discloses to you that he or she has a mental illness or addiction, ask the individual how he or she would like to be helped or simply, “What can I do?” The offer of help shows support and a sense of inclusion, which is often needed for individuals living with mental health or addictions issues and learning to manage a new diagnosis or beginning a recovery journey.
- A friendly ear that openly listens is a powerful ally in the fight against mental illness and addiction.
- Learn as much as you can about the type of mental illness or addiction your colleague is experiencing. There are many myths and getting informed ensures you can be an educated and engaged supporter.
- Unless you believe a coworker is in immediate danger of harming him or herself or others, apply the same sense of privacy you would to any situation regarding sensitive information. What a colleague chooses to share with you may not be something they want shared with other coworkers.
Starting the conversation
One of the hardest hurdles to get over is finding the right words to talk about mental illness and addictions—it’s hard for both the people living with it and their family, friends, and co-workers. As a co-worker and friend, here are some things that can help you break the silence and the stigma:
- Tell them what you talk about is just between you, so long as you know they and the people around them will be safe. Fear of stigma can be overwhelming, especially in the workplace, so it’s important to foster trust.
- Ask open-ended questions like “How are you feeling?” instead of closed statements like “Are you sad?”
- Remember your role, you’re a friend, not a counselor or doctor. You can suggest employee programs or community groups that may be helpful, but mainly listen and be supportive—do not try to “fix” or diagnose the person.
- Acknowledge their feelings and don’t try to change them, but do support overall health and wellness. Talk about what you do to reduce stress and ask what they’re doing. Encourage them to take care of themselves.
Fact: Sometimes we think mental illness is really just a person’s inability to deal with life’s ups and downs, but that’s not the case. Mental illness creates distress, is a real health problem caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, and there is effective treatment available. When someone breaks their arm, we wouldn’t expect them to just “get over it.” Nor would we blame them if they needed a cast, sling, or other help in their daily lives while they recovered. It should be the same for whatever people need—counseling, medication, compassion—to recover from mental illness or addiction.
Myth #2: Mental illness or addiction will never affect me.
Fact: All of us will be affected by mental illness or addiction in our lifetime. You may not experience a mental illness or addiction yourself, but it’s highly likely that a family member, friend, or co-worker will. In fact, researchers estimate that as many as one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness or addiction in any given year.
Myth #3: Mental illness is just an excuse for poor behaviour.
Fact: Some people who experience mental illness may act in ways that are unexpected or seem strange to others. However, it is important to remember that the illness, not the person, is behind these behaviours. No one chooses to experience mental illness. People who experience a change in their behaviour due to a mental illness may feel embarrassed or ashamed around others. It’s also true that people with mental illness are like anyone else: they may make poor choices or do something unexpected for reasons completely unrelated to symptoms of their illness.
Myth #4: People don’t recover from mental illness or addiction.
Fact: People living with a mental illness or addiction can, and do, recover. There are many different kinds of treatments, services, and supports available that can help. No one should expect to feel unwell forever. The fact is, people who experience mental illness or addiction can and do lead productive, successful lives. They work, volunteer, and contribute their skills and abilities to their communities. Even when people experience symptoms of a mental illness or addiction that last for a long time, they can learn to manage their symptoms so they can get back to their goals and living well.
Myth #5: People who experience mental illness are weak and can’t handle stress.
Fact: Stress impacts well-being, but this is true for everyone. In fact, people who experience mental illness may actually be better at managing stress than people who don’t. Many people who experience mental illness learn stress management and problem-solving skills so they can take care of stress before it affects their health and well-being. Taking care of yourself and asking for help when you need it are signs of strength, not weakness.
Myth #6: People who experience mental illness can’t work.
Fact: Considering one in five Canadians experience mental illness, many workplaces have people who are living with a mental illness or addiction and/or are on a recovery journey. And that just goes to show, with the proper treatment and support, most people continue to lead productive and successful work lives. Most people who experience serious mental illness want to work but often face systemic barriers to finding and keeping meaningful employment.