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March 1, 2024

Our Co-Founder and Director Louize Carroll is a writer for the Business Post #designforlife column and regularly advises readers on a range of mental health dilemmas. One week she discusses whether or not someone should tell their employer about their mental health diagnosis.

Dear Louize

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in early adulthood. Fast forward a few years and I’ve been steadily high functioning in my professional working life. I?ve never told any employer about the diagnosis I have and only close friends and family know. The illness doesn’t define me or my abilities, but I still sense a stigma around it as one of the ‘darker’ (sic. misunderstood) mental illnesses. Should I be telling my employer about my diagnosis once I am in a permanent job in case I become very unwell at any point? I worry that the stigma will come into play as soon as I tell them, but I wonder if I don’t tell them about a long-term illness, that it would adversely affect my rights if I became unwell. What should I do? – Anon

Dear Reader

At some point in the future, through a combination of unfortunate events and circumstances, a person?s wellbeing may disintegrate. Day by day, in the face of stressful circumstances combined with bad experiences and a lack of emotional resources and support, the essence of their mental health could be dismantled and they fail to cognitively and emotionally show up to work.

Another person might be in an abusive relationship. They might show up to work day after day, only half present, if at all, riddled with low self-worth, a voice that?s becoming progressively silenced and the remnants of what once was their confidence, now hanging on by a thread.

Both of these individuals? experiences affect productivity. In neither example would we be likely to pressure the person to disclose such personal circumstances to their employer. That doesn?t mean they would nor should be penalised for sharing it. However, as it stands, depending on the culture of the organisation, and how well versed in the law they are, it doesn?t automatically mean that they wouldn?t find themselves disadvantaged either.

As we progress in Ireland in understanding what equality of treatment and of opportunity practicably means in the work environment, the aim is that employers tangibly recognise, prioritise, develop and implement mental health policies, practices and supports that create a dynamic shift in the culture of their organisations. This shift needs to occur in such a way that mental health and wellbeing is accounted for through reasonable accommodations being made for employees who are going through a rough time. This is the aim. But dear reader, it is so much more than that, it is the law.

The direct answer to your very valid question is that there is no obligation on any person to disclose their mental health difficulty to any employer. Furthermore, an employer has no right to ask an employee about their mental health history.

Legislation is in place in Ireland to protect people with mental health difficulties from discrimination in the workplace. However the overarching aim of the Equal Status Act (2000-2011) and the Equality Employments Act (EEA, 1998-2011) is to create mentally healthy workplaces that, without undue burden on the organisation, take appropriate measures to facilitate people who do experience significant mental health problems.

Which, I might add, is everyone, to varying degrees at least once in their lives. We all exist on the spectrum of mental health, and will move up and down this gradient depending on what we are dealing with. We slide into difficulty depending on what traumas we encounter in the context of bad relationships and poor emotional support, and we move into recovery depending on what emotionally restorative resources we encounter that help to protect and nurture us back into health. And it is within the rights of the employee who experiences a mental health difficulty (regarded as a disability in the EEA) to be facilitated in terms of reasonable accommodations that will help them to do their job.

That said, legislation and the day-to-day functioning within organisational cultures are two very different things.

Employees who don?t feel secure enough in their work environment and culture to disclose the impact of a personal problem on their ability to engage with work, will understandably keep it hidden. And so presenteeism or indeed unexplained absenteeism has the potential to perpetuate.

In a direct opposite scenario, employers who openly acknowledge the reality of life and the range of personal problems that can impact productivity at work create a safe and secure environment in which employees can disclose the tough times they may be going through. Such an approach gives the employer the opportunity to take into account an employee?s needs and to make reasonable accommodations that facilitate them to do what is required for their recovery, whilst also tending to their obligations where possible, in a way that works for them. Furthermore, such accommodations by the employer foster trust and engagement from the employee.

Resistance to such approaches, however, lies in the fear for some employers that by making mental health an open topic for discussion and a secure place to disclose difficulties, it could encourage employees to proffer an onslaught of personal problems to the detriment of the time and resources of the company.

In essence, it can very much be a case of ?if we don?t ask the question or make it a safe space for people to disclose, we avoid inviting or condoning a lack of productivity and distraction because of personal problems?. But of course, the problems still exists, and just because it?s not out in the open, doesn?t mean it doesn?t impact that individual?s productivity or indeed the company overall.

It?s a misconception and a head in the sand approach to believe as an employer that if they don?t acknowledge the mental health needs of their employees, that the company won?t be impacted by it and will therefore avoid the need to alter how they run the company ? until of course they may be forced to do it by law through the invocation of the Employment Equality Act (1998-2011).

It?s a misnomer, and the employer will pay the price twofold: they lose their employee?s productivity and they likely lose this employee?s engagement and loyalty in the process as a result. The jig is up, and to stay in the game, to keep attracting and retaining valuable staff, companies must acknowledge we all have mental health, and we will all encounter periods of time where we will struggle.  

It is imperative that companies move quickly towards the authentic advancement of policy implementation in such a way that creates a safer environment to share personal difficulties, and that facilitates employees to both recover their health whilst also even meeting their work goals in a way that works for them.

So legislation aside, and knowing that it is not obligatory that you share your mental health experiences, I wonder does your question remain on whether to share your mental health history with your employer? You say that you have been steadily high functioning in your professional work life for some time now, which suggests that you have found a good rhythm in the management of your previous symptoms.

If you still feel compelled to share your mental health history should you encounter struggles in the future, consider that any decision you make to disclose this information should be based on several important factors. What is the culture of the work environment? Is mental health and wellbeing discussed openly and prioritised? Do you genuinely think the nondisclosure of your experience has the potential to have adverse consequences for you professionally, or generally speaking, what do you believe may be the potential impact of your disclosure, if any?

People, on the whole, have the best of intentions. We collectively, at least theoretically stand for equality of treatment and of opportunity, in our personal lives and in the workplace. The reality is that this does not always manifest in every situation as one might have hoped. Not because people are inherently bad or ill-willed. But because they are as you find them in the moment, a culmination of years of their own experiences, or lack thereof, that either broadened their mind to allow them to learn about other worlds apart from their own, or that kept their worlds narrow, living behind a fear boundary where everything that exists beyond it is either simply incorrect, or not to be trusted. Or quite simply, they see the incorporation of the person?s needs in the workplace as bad for business. This is the reality of what challenges organisational cultural change.

Life is a juxtaposition of learning how to step fully into the true essence of who you are or intend to become, whilst at the same time navigating the complexities of culture and all of its limits and judgements. Society has well-intentioned ways of championing progression with words, but trailing behind at knowing what it means or requires from us individually and collectively to progress practically. We may support equality in theory, but without education and familiarity with the intricacies of what we are championing, we fall short at knowing how to engage and how to develop and implement better methods of supports.

There is healing in revealing parts of yourself that have long remained hidden. But the wisdom lies in knowing with whom it’s safe to do so.