Mental Health in the Workplace

Many of us experience mental health issues in the workplace but few people actually talk about it.  Having been diagnosed for the past 10 years with bipolar disorder, I have come to realize that coming out about your mental illness is not always an easy feat.  In fact, it may be one of the most difficult hurdles to face during your course of employment. 

Upon being diagnosed at the age of 26, I found myself working overseas as an English Teacher and upon trying to obtain a refund for my psychiatric medications, little did I know that having a mental illness was actually frowned upon in the workplace.  As my former boss looked at me sideways when I told him I had bipolar disorder, he vowed not to tell my next prospective employer about his findings as he boldly told me that it would cost me my job.  My confidence swelled; however, I knew that upon returning to Canada I would only work for an employer that supported my mental wellness.  In 2008, I disclosed my mental health condition to a pair of interviewers upon advancing through a government competition.  They had asked me about my experience with project management, so I cited my health as a project and named the ways that I manage to stay healthy.  It indeed feels like a project most days!  Subsequent to the interview I shook my head in regret and considered that I was foolish to be so candid.  Surprisingly, I was told days later that I had won the competition and they were highly impressed with my overall performance, so I happily continued my career into the BC public service.  I considered that taking the risk of disclosure was high but it was a sure way to find out if I would be supported in the workplace.  

I have learned a lot about having a mental health condition and retaining employment.  Values and beliefs that guide workplace behaviors influence the work environment and are key factors in promoting a mentally healthy atmosphere.   There is great importance in the interactions between people, their work and their place of employment.  The social support of fellow co-workers, attitudes and perceptions are vital in making a workplace friendly and accepting.  Mental illness is tricky as you can’t see in clear view that a person’s brain is affected, so consider that a fellow co-worker may be off work experiencing something that is not visible.  Effective management practices are essential in working with someone that has a mental illness and having job satisfaction spells doom or gloom for any employee.  It’s vital to ensure that employees are utilized to their full potential and that leadership style takes shape in the form of flexibility and accommodation. 

As government employees we are offered insurance benefits that creates a type of security net for those that qualify as having an illness that makes one ‘disabled’.  I am grateful to have had Long Term Disability (LTD) benefits, which have allowed me to incrementally return to work starting at 3 hours a day for 3 days a week.  I slowly made my way up to full time finding great support from my boss and co-workers.  I now work a schedule that best suits my needs offering flexibility and accommodation.  I am so open about my mental health condition because I feel it is important for others to realize that people do indeed need time to tend to their mental health, just as much as people need time to heal from a physical ailment. 

Why is it important to discuss mental health issues in the work place?  I consider it essential to bring such issues to the forefront because we all want to be understood, so if there is greater awareness and education in the workplace, then we will undoubtedly create an environment of empathy, respect and acceptance for everyone.