Recent research suggests one in five New Zealanders will experience some form of mental illness this year alone, but in contrast, Equal Employment Commissioner, Dr Jackie Blue says the workplace is often not accommodating this disability well.
Dr Blue explains that mental illness falls into the disability category of the Human Rights Act and it is therefore a breach of the Act to discriminate against people with a mental illness. This category is also included in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that NZ is a party to.
The Convention requires employers to ensure that ‘reasonable accommodation’ is provided to persons with disabilities for them to continue in the workplace
The Human Rights Commission (HRC) often receives complaints of discrimination from people with a mental illness and the Commissioner’s concern is that this is just the tip of the iceberg because people are too scared to complain.
An HRC case study of a worker who told her employer (during an investigation into absenteeism), that she suffered from depression from time to time is an example of what can sometimes happen when a staff member discloses their illness:
The disclosure led to her being given a warning for failing to disclose a health condition – and then she suffered from being the butt of jokes and derogatory comments from her colleagues. Her health began to fail because of her colleagues’ conduct and she resigned. Later she took the matter to the Human Rights Commission, eventually settling by mediation and being awarded $3000 for the stress and humiliation experienced.
Dr Blue says that as there are actually so many employees that are going to experience mental health issues or are coping with mental illness that it is in the employer’s interest to work out how to accommodate a person who may need a bit more support. She says that to go further and actually encourage an understanding culture about this disability will lead to greater productivity in the workplace in the long run.
“A person is more likely to disclose a problem when they don’t fear losing their job, this means solutions can be found more quickly in a better and fairer way for everyone involved,” Dr Blue said.
Recent research from PriceWaterhouseCoopers Australia suggests that, for every dollar spent on implementing successful mental health strategies, businesses receive over $2 in return – and in Australian workplaces the cost of untreated mental health conditions is approximately $11 billion a year.
“We need to encourage a work environment that has peer support, collaborative relapse prevention and programmes at work to support staff to get well. Employment has been identified as an important factor in the recovery of people with mental illness and is generally associated with better mental health,” she says.
“The objective is to ensure people with mental health and addiction disorders retain their jobs and work productively.”
Whether to disclose or not to experience of mental illness was a vexed issue. The employee does have a responsibility to disclose a disability that may affect their ability to do the job but an employer has a responsibility to accommodate this as much as they reasonably can.
“There’s the myth that if you’ve got a mental illness you’re actually not employable. You can’t handle stress, you’re potentially dangerous to yourself and to others, you are a lot of extra work, you’re unreliable, you will take lots of time off, and so on.
“Often accommodating a person with a mental health issue involves of a bit of give and take, flexibility offered by the employer and the vision to help the staff member get well.
“I encourage people considering disclosing a mental health issue to their employer, but are unclear on their own obligations or that of their employer, to contact the Commission Infoline for advice,” Dr Blue suggests.
Dr Blue is a supporter of the Step Forward campaign.