Katie Cousens* had been working with her employer for a year before she told her boss she was experiencing depression and anxiety.
“I probably wouldn’t have told my boss if it weren’t for my appointments and that’s because I would have felt a bit embarrassed to be honest due to the stigma associated with mental illness,” she says.
“I decided to tell my employer because of the fact that I couldn’t always get counselling sessions to fit around my lunch break and I needed to have flexibility as to when I took my hour off throughout the day.”
Beyond Blue Workplace and Workforce Program Leader Therese Fitzpatrick says despite the fact that depression is recognised as a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act and people can’t be discriminated against based on experiencing mental illness, workers are hesitant to disclose their illness to their employer.
“There still is a real fear around people telling their boss that they are experiencing problems and that it will mean they won’t get promotions or they will be treated differently,” she says.
A recent survey by SANE Australia found that four out of 10 Australians who take sick leave for depression keep it hidden from their employer, with almost half fearing that their job could be compromised if they revealed they are experiencing mental illness.
Although Cousens wasn’t concerned about losing her job, she was afraid that her employer might not understand her illness.
“The only concern I had in telling my boss was that she might treat me a bit differently but in a negative way and perhaps think I wasn’t up to doing such a good job when working under pressure,” she says.
“I worried that she thought I may get more stressed than the average employee because of my depression.”
Although you are not legally required to disclose that you have mental illness to your employer unless it is affecting how you are doing your job, Fitzpatrick says an employer cannot provide you with the assistance and support you need if you don’t reveal that you have depression or anxiety.
“The benefit of disclosing means that workplaces can actually make adjustments for you if needed or ensure appropriate support in place. You can’t get support if your workplace doesn’t know.”
“What we often hear is stories of people who don’t disclose their illness and over time all the manager notices is that there is a performance issue. If you’re noticing that a mental health problem is impacting on your job, it’s worth thinking about talking to your employer,” she says.
Fitzpatrick says there are factors to consider before disclosing your mental illness to your employer.
“It is worth thinking about how you will get support for yourself so talk to somebody before you do it, know your legal rights and obligations and think about how you will disclose,” she says.
Beyond Blue advises to think about the following before talking to your employer:
What are your reasons for telling?
What reaction are you expecting?
What will you do if the reaction you get is different from your expectations?
How much detail about your condition are you comfortable revealing?
Are there any particular actions your employer could take that would assist you?
When telling your employer, Beyond Blue suggests that you:
Explain how your experience of depression or anxiety impacts your ability to do your job and tell him/her any adjustments that you may require.
Remind your employer of your skills and strengths.
Discuss the best way for you and your boss to talk about concerns in the future.
Keep a record of all discussions you have with your boss about these issues.
“It’s always really important to have a support person who you have spoken to before so if it doesn’t go well, you’ve got somebody to talk to afterwards,” says Fitzpatrick.
Despite her initial concerns, Cousens was glad she decided to tell her boss.
“My employer was really supportive and it wasn’t an issue for me to attend the counselling sessions in work time as I needed,” she says.
“Telling them was received a lot better than I had thought it might and be and I think it led to us having more trust in each other and allowed us to have a more open and honest relationship going forward.”
*name has been changed.