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Bosses Need To Hire More People With A History Of Mental Illness

Would you employ a person with a mental illness?

If a raging alarm-bell ‘NO’ just flashed in your brain faster than a CV toss in a rubbish bin, you’re confirming the greatest fear of job seekers with a history of mental illness -- no strangers to entrenched stigma. Or you might call it “sanism”, the irrational prejudice against people with mental illness.

In a 2015 study by the University of Melbourne, over half of participants said they weren’t hired due to their mental illness. One described the devastating response he would receive from interviewers on revealing his mental illness as “worse than telling them you’ve been in jail”. It’s no wonder applicants don’t disclose, or are so scared off by possible rejection that they don’t even apply for a job at all.

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The term ‘mental illness’ has become loaded when it comes to employment: it conjures severe sickness, incapacitation, financial burden. Prejudice and assumptions stick to it like year-old gum on an office desk underbelly: that people with a mental illness are incapable, unreliable, unproductive, unstable.

It’s blatantly reductive and untrue, and frankly, as someone who has struggled with mental ill-health, deeply offensive.

From where I stand, despite all the discourse on mental health in society, workplaces are suffering from not enough of it. Some years ago during a period of severe depression, my disclosure to my boss at the time gave me some relief with the promise of, “Come in for a chat, we’ll work something out”. But what they actually meant was, “Your services won’t be required anymore.”

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Fast forward, and despite the inroads companies are making with mental health initiatives, research suggests a culture of stigma-induced silence in the workforce persists. A report by Allianz Australia found that 82 percent of Australians with a full-time job wouldn’t disclose mental ill-health because of the stigma attached.

And although some employers will be open to hiring people with a mental health condition, a significant reluctance still exists. One survey of Australian employers found that 34 percent of managers wouldn’t be open to hiring someone with a permanent psychological health condition or disability -- more than double those who said they would be.

But what if we flipped the narrative with a metaphorical shredding of stigma by actually valuing mental illness in the workplace? What if we could fight mental illness at work with… mental illness? Okay now, raise that jaw to resting position and pick up whatever device you just dropped -- this isn’t some hair-brained brain-fart, hear me out.

To combat poor mental health, a workplace needs knowledge, empathy, communication, transparency, and the iron will to break down stigma. That’s where those with lived experience of mental illness come in:  a ready-made resource to tap into; a mental health consultant if you will.

Apart from the requisite skills for their assigned role, they can offer recovery and coping advice, an acute awareness of signs to look out for, advice on how and where to get help, an empathetic ear on a peer level, emotional intelligence. And they can offer a less commonly noted job skill: resilience. If anyone has it on tap, it’s someone who has withstood a battle with mental illness.

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And their path to stable mental health and work readiness, via the Stigma Highway, has been hard-fought too. If an employer takes a chance on them, they’ll likely find they’ll be repaid with loyalty, enthusiasm and hard work. Above and beyond the money, a job that gives a person with mental illness purpose and value, can actually improve their mental health.

But the ripple effect goes much further. By employing people with a history of mental illness, companies can send a strong message that they’re committed to the mental health of their employees. A positive approach to mental health has been shown to lead to increased productivity, better worker engagement, company loyalty and recruitment prospects.

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Investing in the optimal emotional well-being of staff makes good business sense, with PricewaterhouseCoopers estimating that every dollar an organisation spends on effective workplace mental health initiatives can result in a positive return on investment of $2.30.

But some employers may see hiring someone with mental illness as too costly a proposition in resources and time, assumed absenteeism and potential worker’s compensation claims. They may perceive them as unreliable, unable to cope with pressure, less productive, a disruption to other staff. In short, a complication they don’t need.

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And yet, given the prevalence of mental-ill health in Australia, most commonly depression and anxiety, employers may already have staff with mental health issues they're unaware of because of nondisclosure due to stigma.

But with the massive economic and social impact of mental ill-health, businesses can’t afford to look away.

Almost half of Australians aged 16-85 will experience mental ill health in their lifetime and 20 percent of Australians will experience a mental health condition in a 12-month period. Mental ill-health is the biggest cause of work absence and incapacity, hitting Australian workplaces to the tune of $12.8 billion a year, including $2.6 billion in absenteeism and $9.9 billion in presenteeism (reduced productivity while at work).

Clearly something needs to change in our workforce. The model for one potential solution already exists in the mental health sector where peer workers are required to use their experiences of mental illness and recovery to support their clients. It’s my hope that peer workers will one day be employed across all industries as an on-site resource for employees. But that will take funding, training and the willingness of businesses and staff to get on board with the concept.

Businesses can start the ball rolling by explicitly communicating that they’re open to employing those with lived experience of mental illness, and that rather than that being a burden, it’s a valuable asset for the management of staff mental health.

Imagine if you could actually list “lived experience of mental illness” on your CV as a key selling point? Something you could actually be paid for rather than penalised?

As I write this, I’m awestruck at the notion, and not a little emotional.

On a macro level, business leaders need to ask themselves if prejudice exists in their recruitment process. If it does, not only are they continuing a damaging cycle of stigma, they’re missing out on a talent pool of dedicated and dynamic professionals ready and willing to give their all.

Employers can find more information at Heads UpThe Black Dog Institute, and Disability Employment Services.

If you need help in a crisis, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.