Mental Illness: The Stigma in the Workplace

Employers are affected by the stigma surrounding mental health. What are we supposed to do about it? 

Recently, I’ve been applying for jobs and I noticed something peculiar. Certain job applications will ask me if I have a disability. Now, initially I would answer ‘no,’ but when I took a closer look I realized, I couldn’t. Bipolar disorder was one of the disabilities labeled on the list. So, I was posed with two options: 1. Lie and say no, I don’t have a disability, or 2. Answer the question truthfully. Now, you may be wondering, Katy, why would you lie about something like that. Well, at first I thought nothing of it either, until I started to think more about the questions. Why was I being asked to answer this question in the first place? Why was it important for the employer to know this about me? Then I thought, would I be discriminated against for having a “disability.” Well, that’s what we’re going to try and find out.

What about the stigma?

For starters, what exactly is a stigma; this thing that makes such a large impact on the mental health community to begin with. In simplest terms, a stigma is a mark of disgrace used to separate those associated with the stigma from everyone else in society. Many times, those suffering from mental illness are associated with terms such as unpredictable, unreliable, lazy, crazy, and are criticized for not only their behavior but for seeking help for their conditions. These dangerous preconceived notions about those who suffer from mental illness are precisely why I was apprehensive to disclose my own illness to an employer. 

The fact of the matter is that until the stigma surrounding mental illness is eliminated there is always going to be hiring descrimination. The key to combating that stigma is knowledge. What many employers fail to realize is that steady employment can actually benefit those suffering from mental illness. A stable income and consistent interaction with other people creates an environment perfect for decreasing the effects on one’s disability.

Let’s Focus On the Employers

Employers should also be well informed on non-discrimination laws. The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) exists so that those living with a mental illness are protected under the law when it comes to employment opportunities. If an individual feels that this act has been breached in any way then they can file a complaint with agencies like the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Overall, what employers should be thinking about when hiring someone with a disability or mental illness is the positives that this individual can bring to the company. There are many studies that show the benefit of prioritizing the mental health of employees in the workplace; this benefit is not just for the employees themselves, but also for the company. The more time an individual has to take off because of side effects related to a condition like depression, means less productivity for the company. There’s also the added healthcare costs of individuals who suffer side effects from their mental illness. Compared to compensation for the flu per year, which lies about $10.4 billion, companies, on average, shell out about $110 billion compensating for issues related to depression. It’s also important to remember that mental health isn’t just a priority for those living with a mental illness. Put under too much stress and not given enough resources to manage and resolve that stress can lead anyone down a dangerous path towards health problems that could have been otherwise avoided if preemptive measures were put in place to begin with.

What about us?

What about everyone else out here applying for jobs, wondering if they’re going to be discriminated against or not? Or, how about those already in a job, and thinking about disclosing their mental illness or not? Well, there are a few things anyone in these situations can do. 

For those of us looking to get an interview, we can choose not to disclose our mental illness, but keep in mind that studies have shown that honesty in the workplace creates a degree of respect between the employer and employee. This also applies to those of us that are already in a working environment and are deciding whether or not to disclose a mental illness or not. An employer may also have personal experience with mental illness and know just exactly what steps need to be taken to accommodate an employee who chooses to disclose. 

Overall, my advice for those of us out there looking to disclose their mental illness in a professional setting, is to do what feels right. However, let me remind you that hiding something like mental illness can take a pretty big toll on us mentally and physically. This is not an issue to stress ourselves out over. Rather, when applying for jobs, or already in the workplace, we should be confident in who we are as individuals and the skills that we bring to the table. And, remember we are always protected under the ADA; so when all else fails there are people ready to advocate for us and our ability to contribute to society.  

Written By Katy Egan

Posted in
Actions We Can All Take to Help Destigmatize Mental Health