Mental illness is extremely common. One in five Australians will experience some form of mental illness in any given year, which translates to over four million Australians.
Many will quickly recover, but for some, their illness will be persistent and enduring.
Those with mental illnesses work in all sorts of jobs. Many are in positions of trust and authority.
But significant stigma remains. Most would be loath to mention it in a job interview. And for those who cannot hide it, it usually leads to them being passed over for employment.
But that’s slowly changing.
Filippo Savoia is a factory hand at Surplus Recycling Solutions, a Melbourne-based electronic components recycler.
Like about 30% of the workforce there, he has a disability. Savoia has schizophrenia, which he says reduced his confidence and his motivation to work.
His job, which he found in March after working with not-for-profit employment services provider WISE Employment, has given him a sense of purpose, a “reason to get up and get going, and a workplace that just lets you get on and do your job”.
“Before that, I had lost all motivation,” he says.
At SRS, Savoia was hired by and reports to Indi Batth, a 24-year-old supervisor.
SRS already employed a number of people with physical disabilities, but when Savoia started with them, they employed no one else with mental disabilities.
Batth tells SmartCompany he was approached by WISE Employment. Because he had good experiences employing workers with physical disabilities, he decided to give Savoia a go.
“We thought we’d need help from WISE to do it, but Filippo came out fantastic,” Batth says. “We needed very little help.
“When Filippo first started he worked so hard he didn’t have any breaks, including lunch breaks, he just kept going. We asked Filippo to take breaks.
“Today, he’s probably one of our best workers.”
What particularly impressed Batth was Savoia’s keenness and enthusiasm for the job.
“In my experience, if somebody’s keen, it’s good to give them a go,” he says. “The ones who are keen, they work a lot harder than a lot of fully capable people.”
In holding these attitudes, Batth isn’t an isolated case. Research released yesterday by WISE and conducted by McNair Ingenuity Research found Gen Y managers were the most willing to employ someone with a mental illness.
McNair surveyed 276 small businesses, and found 42% of Gen Y managers said they were likely to hire someone with a mental illness. That figure fell the older a manager got. Among Baby Boomer managers, the figure declined to 16%.
When it comes to managers overall, only 27% said they were willing to give someone with a mental illness a go.
The main reasons given for this was a belief that those with mental illnesses are unpredictable or unstable (cited by 61% of hiring mangers as a reason not to hire). Respondents could choose more than one answer, and close to half (47% of respondents) also cited a belief that such workers wouldn’t mix well with other staff, while the same number said they would be unable to do the job.
Matthew Lambelle, WISE Employment general manager strategy and alliance, says these attitudes do not match reality.
Asked why younger managers were more likely to have an open mind towards mental illness, Lambelle nominated the period of time they grew up in.
“In recent years, there’s better and more education on the issue,” he says. “There’s a lot more understanding too. That has increased awareness, which leads to an open-mindedness to see past mental illness, and instead look at merit.”
“That’s really positive. We think such attitudes can only become more common.
“Work is so fundamental to day-to-day prosperity. Bening denied access, through discrimination and exclusion, it doesn’t help the cause, it doesn’t help individuals, and it doesn’t help the community.”
Employers are busy, and have varying degrees of understanding regarding mental health and mental illness. However, Lambelle says, many are also unaware of the resources that exist to support them in getting the most out of workers with mental illnesses.
“There are national networks, employment services similar to ours, which can provide support to get the best out of people. There are 1900 locations nationally that can help employers with this,” he says.
Most people do not disclose their mental illnesses for understandable fear of the stigma that exists around it. This means even though almost all businesses would employ someone with a mental illnesses, the managers may not know about it.
This is far from ideal, Lambelle says.
“With regard to physical injury – if someone is put on light duties for a few weeks – that’s accepted in the workplace. You just work around it and through it. But if someone experiences mental illness, there’s not the same openness and willingness to cut the same slack and flexibility for them. You can’t see mental illness. And that lack of openness means you can’t manage around it.”