Climbing to the top with a mental illness: Should you tell?

Climbing to the top with a mental illness: Should you tell?

One in five Australians suffer from a mental illness, according to the report-card released yesterday by the Australian government’s Mental Health Commission.

Many of these are executives or managers, and they face a particular dilemma in alerting their workplaces to their difficulties.

On the one hand, openness is crucial if the stigma of mental illness is to be overcome, and for workplaces to accommodate talented executives who are managing a mental illness.

In today’s Australian Financial Review, Katherine Hough, a deputy secretary in the Tasmanian state government, describes how she told her 200-plus staff that she had a mental illness. “It was important they know why I took every second Wednesday off,” she told the newspaper.

“People need to know you can live with this… They are less afraid if they know there are people like me who can participate in the workforce at a very high level if we get the right support.”

But according to psychologists and career advisers LeadingCompany contacted today, in too much of corporate Australia, an aspiring executive would do well to think strategically about revealing any mental illness.

Brian Gardner is the general manager of the Victorian office for career advisory The Donnington Group. He has first-hand experience. “I struggle with anxiety and depression,” he says. When he revealed this, a previous employer began to treat him differently.

“Unfortunately, mental health issues are not well understood,” he says. “It’s not a positive thing for senior people to disclose. The perception is that if you have a mental illness, you ‘don’t have your act together’. That leads people to thinking you’re not leadership material.

“Even if companies don’t deliberately discriminate – and they shouldn’t – there are more subtle forms of discrimination they may not even be aware they’re engaging in.”

Gardner, who climbed the corporate ladder despite this discrimination, says it is quite common among the executives he speaks with every day. “In my experience 10-15% of executives are depressed or have anxiety,” he says.

There are costs to keeping mental illness hidden from employers, points out psychologist Dr Simon Kinsella.

“The biggest risk to employees is that their employers just see them as underperformers without the context of knowing about what’s going on in their lives,” he says. “Kept in the dark, they can’t do anything to support them. An appropriate employer would look at that scenario and support them rather than manage them out, thinking they’re not performing.”

But Kinsella says whether or not to disclose depends on the corporate environment one works in.

“Some employers are very poor at managing these sorts of issues,” he says. “There’s generally a lack of understanding in a large proportion of the community about what it means to have a mental illness. The words sound very serious, and in some cases that’s reasonable, but the majority of mental illness is depression and anxiety. People with those can generally function quite well at work.”

Before making any decision to disclose a mental condition, Kinsella recommends executives sit down with their treating practitioner to talk the discussion through.

When it comes to telling colleagues, Kinsella says people should be cautious about making the issue widely known.

“You wouldn’t let everyone know you have cancer,” he says. “It might be completely treatable and have no impact your work. And it’s the same with mental health issues.

“Not everyone may understand or handle the situation appropriately. And there are people who will do things to take advantage and try to get personal gain out of it.”

There’s plenty companies can do to de-stigmatise mental illness, Kinsella says. “Some workplaces are very good at it. But others aren’t, and that’s where the difficulty lies.” 


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