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Mental illness in the workplace

By Meaghan Whelan

If a quarter of your co-workers were suffering from a mental illness, would you even know?

Chances are, you wouldn’t. It isn’t a topic often talked about around the water cooler, yet the World Health Organization estimates that one in four people are living with mental illness.

Given the stigma that exists around mental illnesses, many workers suffering from psychiatric illnesses are reluctant to disclose their condition. The lack of acceptance also limits the ability of organizations to provide effective workplace accommodations. “There is a catch-22 situation that needs to be rectified. Disclosure has been a huge stumbling block in the fight against stigma, and stigma is a huge barrier to disclosure,” said Heather Peters, a graduate of the Master of Employment Relations program.

Ms. Peters, with faculty advisor Dr. Travor Brown, found a gap in the research on mental illness in the workplace, so she conducted a research project as a part of the MER program.

“In the past, research on mental illness in the workplace has focused on the manager and the individual with the illness,” Ms. Peters explained. “The main purpose of our research was to gain insight into the attitudes of employees concerning co-workers with mental illness.”

When the researchers investigated the extent to which employees felt that making accommodations for workers with mental illness – through policies like flexible scheduling, increased supervision or longer or more frequent break periods -- was appropriate, they found an interesting response.

They found that the employees surveyed found accommodations such as flexible work hours, time off for counselling, and banking overtime to be appropriate, but employees were less supportive of accommodations involving longer, more frequent breaks.

Ms. Peters theorized that this could be because these accommodations may be seen as special perks or may have negative impacts on other workers. “It’s important for organizations to ensure that accommodations for people with mental issues are seen less as special treatment and more like equitable treatment,” she explained.

They found that employees who believe that co-workers with mental illnesses are treated fairly within the organization are more likely to disclose their illness if they become mentally ill. This belief that employees will be treated fairly was also found to increase the likelihood of respondents seeking assistance via employee assistance programs, co-workers or managers, for their illness.

“A practical implication of these findings for managers and labour leaders is that workplaces that wish to successfully accommodate workers with mental illness must create an environment where employees see that peers with mental illness are treated equitably,” said Ms. Peters. “This could be achieved by creating specific workplace policies or collective agreement clauses concerning non-discrimination on the basis of mental illness.”

Ms. Peters did note there are limitations to the findings of this study and potential for further investigation. “Our study consisted of unionized healthcare employees, so other sectors should be examined to see if the results from this survey hold true. We also did not differentiate between type or severity of mental illness.”

A preliminary version of the paper, mental illness at work: an assessment of co-workers reactions, was presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in August, 2006. A final version was published in the Canadian Journal of Administrative Studies in the fall of 2009. Ms. Peters completed her master of employment relations degree in 2005. She is currently working as the regional human resource manager (Atlantic) with Aon Reed Stenhouse.