Mental health stigma silences employees

“I was worried I'd be sacked if I told the truth or that it wouldn't remain confidential.”

Is your mental health condition the final health taboo in the workplace?

In recent Priory Group research 71% of the people we spoke to would worry about telling their employer if they had a mental health condition, for fear of getting a negative response. For many, the desire to keep their condition hidden has led to them ringing work with a made-up illness rather than admit they were experiencing a mental health issue.

Mental health stigma in the workplace

Fewer than three in ten would tell an employer about their mental health condition

We spoke to successful businessman, Paul Booth, who has bipolar disorder. Having spent much of his working life in South Africa, Paul was shocked to encounter the levels of stigma against mental health conditions in the UK: 

 “In South Africa, as long as it was out in the open, it was like there was no elephant in the room, nothing waiting to come out.  It would be very difficult to be that open about my condition in the UK. I think I would struggle to get a job, to be honest.”

Workplace compatibility

How easy it is to work while hiding your mental health condition from your employer and colleagues can depend on how senior you are and the nature of your work. Dr Richard Bowskill, Consultant Psychiatrist at The Priory Hospital Brighton and Hove, explained that sometimes high-flyers can succeed in the workplace for a longer period, despite any mental health issues: “there are very senior people with mental health conditions. I suspect this is because they are at a senior enough level for their jobs and way of working to be flexible”.  

Paul Booth explained that he found this is also the situation in more creative careers: “you find a lot of people with my condition in the arts, or self-employed, because they can have bursts of creative energy, and then they fall off the radar. And they can do that working for themselves”. 

workplace stress survey

What about those with less flexibility in how they work?  Dr Bowskill went on: “I think there’s a whole group of people in the middle who are in, say, middle management or sales or other task-related jobs, where they are under so much scrutiny that if they do become depressed and they stop functioning it becomes apparent to everybody.  They’re more likely to lose their jobs because their jobs are based on routine, they’re not flexible, and they’re more closely scrutinised and monitored.”

Worried about keeping a job

These findings corroborate with the levels of worry present in different age groups.   Our research reveals that the youngest age bracket, the 18-24s, were less likely to worry about telling their employer (though 61% would still worry about this), whereas the age groups which are traditionally more established in their workplace worried more.  Numbers peaked in the 35-44 year old age group, where 73% of those surveyed would worry about telling their employer about a condition.  This was reflected across the adjacent age groups, with 72% of 45-54 year olds worrying about telling their employer and 71% of 25-34 year olds.

It was those working part-time or as self-employed who would worry most about disclosing their mental health condition. Only 22% of part-time workers felt that they could tell an employer.

We all live in the shadow of workplace mental health stigma

Our research illustrates that there is still a definite stigma around mental health in the workplace.  What was unanticipated was the response from those who do not live with a mental health condition – they seemed even more alert to the stigma surrounding mental health than those with a condition. Staggeringly, over 79% of the people we spoke to without a mental health condition worried that they wouldn’t be able to tell their employer if they did have one. This clearly demonstrates a continuing taboo. Poppy Jaman, CEO of Mental Health First Aid England, agreed with this lurking sense of stigma:

“Sadly, the Priory’s research findings are indicative of the stigma that continues to shroud mental health and the impact it has on those who are experiencing a mental health issue.  We already know that one in six British workers will experience a mental health problem at some point in their career, but the fear of discrimination often prevents them from accessing help and support early on and these latest figures further demonstrate the very real fear that employees have around disclosing mental health issues to their employers.”

“Have you ever called in sick with a mental health condition?”

Using our twitter account @PrioryGroup we asked our followers “have you ever had to call in sick because of a mental health condition (such as depression, stress, anxiety) but told your work you were suffering from something else? If so, why did you make up another illness?” We were overwhelmed by the responses, which ranged from anger at levels of miscomprehension to anxiety over the threat of redundancy due to repeated absence.  Here are a handful of the responses:

  • “I have depression (now under control) and have called in sick with headaches, period pains and stomach upsets because I don’t think they would understand and would think I was a liability.”
  • “I have anxiety, but people either decide that I’m “crazy” or that I’m a bit nervous about something. They do not understand, or try to understand, the condition. I have had employers think that this means I can’t do my job, despite doing it fine when they didn’t know!”
  • “I suffer anxiety and sometimes cannot even manage to leave the house.  I claimed I had food poisoning to give me 48 hours to stabilise because I was worried I'd be sacked if I told the truth or that it wouldn't remain confidential.”

Our research also revealed that, although 24.95% of men polled were diagnosed compared to 19.35% of women, women were more likely to worry about their employer’s response, with 75.77% of women worrying compared to only 66.6% of men. 

As good a job as anyone

This sense that people will question an employee’s ability if they disclose a mental health condition is prevalent, and a difficult attitude to dispel.  Kate Nightingale, Head of Communications at anti-stigma mental health campaign Time to Change, which is run by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, explained this relationship:

“One in four people experience mental health problems in any year but it’s a myth to think that people with mental health problems can’t work and do just as good a job as anyone else.  However, stigma and discrimination can often stop people returning to, or looking for, work.”

Change the workplace, change the stigma

Looking to the future, our experts were in agreement – we must break down the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace so that employees can be open about their condition, and any help they may require.  Dr Bowskill suggests some sort of early recognition policy to help instigate treatment or support as early as possible, as well as allowing more flexibility in the working environment.  But this can only occur if we move closer to acceptance.  He told us that “there’s a huge amount of stigma out there, especially in the workplace. The stigma suffered can be as bad as the mental illness itself. Many compare their mental health condition with other illnesses, for example the stigma of cancer or heart problems. The stigma of mental illness is still very much higher”.

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