For many employees, one of the most difficult aspects of navigating the modern workplace is deciding whether to disclose a mental health issue.
Not every employee is required to be open about their condition, and there is often a fear of the potential consequences for their career if they are.
We take a look at when an employee is obligated to disclose, what employers must do, and the pros and cons of disclosure.
what does the law say about the employee’s responsibility?
When dealing with mental illness in the workplace, employees are not required to share details of their condition with employers unless there are legitimate concerns that it may affect their ability to perform their role properly.
For example, employees who operate heavy machinery but are struggling with alcoholism, drug addiction or are reliant on certain types of medication should advise their employers, so that they do not risk their safety or that of their colleagues.
Failing to share this information could mean that the employee is in breach of their obligations under Work Health and Safety legislation.
what must employers do?
Commonwealth legislation determines that it is unlawful for employers to discriminate against their employees for a variety of reasons, including discrimination on the basis of a mental health condition.
According to the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth), employers cannot act in a discriminatory fashion towards employees based on past or future conditions, temporary or permanent conditions, or actual or imputed disabilities.
Types of discrimination which employees with mental health conditions may face include:
- Direct discrimination, for instance when a candidate is not hired or an employee is disciplined inappropriately because of their mental health.
- Indirect discrimination, for example requiring all employees to eat lunch in the staff lunchroom – which for instance might cause difficulties for employees with anxiety.
Choosing not to make adjustments for an employee who is struggling with their mental health is a form of discrimination.
There are also obligations on employers around disclosing an employee’s mental health status to others in the organisation. All employment relationships include an inherent requirement of confidentiality, which means that employers are prevented from discussing or disseminating information about their employees’ mental health.
Exceptions can be made in circumstances where the information must be shared in order to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the life or health of the employee or as required by law.
pros and cons of disclosure
Workers who don’t have an obligation to disclose often struggle with the pros and cons of sharing this information with their employers and co-workers.
A clear advantage of disclosing this information is that colleagues are aware of the circumstances under which the employee is operating and can provide a level of social support. Managers who know that a team member is struggling with mental health issues may well be more sympathetic, and can assist by providing more flexible working arrangements, lessening workloads in times of crisis, or otherwise ensuring that the workplace is generally accommodating of the employee’s needs.
Further, ill-founded rumours or gossip may be avoided by an employee being open about the difficulties they are facing and could help de-stigmatise mental health issues in the workplace.
Disadvantages include sharing very private information with colleagues, which may be disseminated to other people in the organisation and have the potential to result in harassment or discrimination. This may be particularly relevant in circumstances where the mental health condition is temporary or does not affect the ability of the employee to perform their duties adequately.
mental health and wellbeing in the workplace
Employees can contribute to good mental health at work by:
- Taking care of themselves
- Avoiding known triggers
- Participating in exercise
- Taking regular breaks during the work day
- Staying up to date with any medication
- Relying on a support network (both inside and outside work)
- Avoiding external influences like excessive alcohol or drugs.
If you would like more information on mental health in the workplace, check out our series of articles on Mental Health in the Workplace. WISE Workplace can also assist employers with drafting and implementing policies relating to mental health disclosure.