Employing those with mental illness: Who really has the problem?

Posted on 14 October 2011

Mental illness is a condition which affects many Australian families. According to statistics, almost one in five (20%) Australians experience some form of mental illness each year. Although there is a general lack of understanding about mental illness in the broader community, it has not stopped people from making quick assumptions and prejudgments about it and those it affects. Studies show that there is a widely held misconception about the capacities of those with mental illness, particularly in an employment context as employees and indeed potential employees.

The Misconception

The problem lies with the misconception, which experts say result from a lack of education and understanding about mental illness. iii This then translates into assumptions and negative stereotypes developed by the broader community based on inconclusive evidence. In no other area do these assumptions and stereotypes impact mental illness sufferers more than in the workplace.

The Workplace

Government commentators say that people who have mental illness face the highest degree of stigmatisation in the workplace and the greatest barriers to employment opportunities. iv The reason for this is because employers and workplace managers (as members of the broader community) make wrongful assumptions that employees or potential employees with mental illness will not be able to perform the job well or, at least, not as productively and efficiently as another candidate without such a condition.

This results in the following negative implications (to name a few):

  • Increased barriers to entry for candidates with mental illness;
  • Candidates with mental illness not fully disclosing their condition to their employer or potential employer;
  • No proper workplace policies and procedure to cater for those who have a mental illness;
  • Lack of flexible conditions to assist those with mental illness; and
  • Bullying and harassment in the workplace.

The reality of the situation is that people with mental illness, or at least being honest about their condition, are being denied opportunities to work based simply on a negative stereotype with nothing to do with their actual attributes, skills and abilities. It begs the question, who really has the problem? The person suffering from mental illness, or the stereotypical manager?

The Problem: Who has it?

What employers and managers should understand is that the issue is the actual mental illness itself and not the person it is affecting. Viewing the situation in any other way has the potential to cause significant ethical and legal implications for an employer or manager.

Like any other medical condition, mental illness is manageable and treatable with the right approach. Researchers say that those receiving effective treatment and management have been found to make very good employees.v In fact, those suffering mental illness have been found to have the capacity to work even harder than others, be more loyal and take less sick days due to their greater motivation to work hard and their high value of work in general.

Accordingly, employers and managers should be aware that like other employees and candidates, those with mental illness do have the potential and capabilities to work well in all sorts of situations. To rule them out based solely on an unfounded assumption and undermine their potential and capabilities based on negative stereotypes shows that the real problem lies with employers and managers and not with actual sufferers.

The solution

Employers and managers must ensure that each employee and potential employee, especially those with a mental illness, are given a fair-go, respect and the necessary protection they deserve in the workplace.

Employers and managers can achieve this by:

  • educating and making themselves aware of mental illness issues, particularly in the workplace environment;
  • detaching themselves from their subjective thoughts and being more objective during the hiring process focusing primarily on experience, skill and ability;
  • implementing appropriate workplace policies and procedures to assist employees with mental illness;
  • encouraging frequent dialogue and discussion with mental illness sufferers, treating them as experts of their condition and listening to ways they may be assisted better;
  • ensuring flexible working arrangements to help manage mental illness;
  • protection from harassment and bullying in the workplace;
  • encouraging disclosure of mental illness as a way to assist in the development of the individual in the workplace; and
  • never assuming.

By actively working towards achieving the above goals, employers will ensure that they are doing all they can to assist their current employees with mental illness, cut down on the wrongful assumptions and stereotypes, provide opportunities to well deserving people willing to work hard, disclose and manage their mental illness, whilst building a successful business and meeting proper legal standards and practices.

i. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2003, Disability, Ageing and Carers: Summary of Findings, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra, viewed 11 October 2011, <http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/4430.02003?OpenDocument>.
iiKnox, Jo ‘Don’t make assumptions about employees with mental illness’, Hr Daily, 5 September 2011.
iii. Ibid.
iv.  JobAccess Australia Government, ‘Working with people with disability’, viewed 11 October 2011. <http://jobaccess.gov.au/Coworkers/Working_with_people_with_disability/How_to_work_with_people_with_disability/Pages/Talkingaboutmentalillness.aspx>.
v. Knox, Jo, above n ii.