Most employers understand a sick day. Though your boss may not like it when you stay home, with symptoms like sneezing, sniffing and coughing, they’ll understand it. You’re visibly unwell and unable to do your job to the best of your ability for the duration of the cold. And by not coming into the office, you’re not infecting everyone else. Mental illness, however, is a different story.
INVISIBLE ILLNESSES & LACK OF UNDERSTANDING
Though prevalent in the workplace, mental illnesses like anxiety or depression are not viewed like physical illnesses by many employers. True, there has been a more open dialogue about mental illness and some companies have measures in place to support their employees. But even with new policies put in place, some workplaces aren’t as progressive.
While I was on a several-month contract at a previous workplace, all the managers of the different departments spent half a day out of the office at a training session on how to support their employees with their mental health. At the time, I was undergoing an unexpectedly very stressful and challenging period in my personal life. Due to the special training my manager had completed, I thought it would be reasonable to inform her of the temporary stressful problems I was having as I feared it was affecting my work. I received the support I needed – I was told if I needed to take a day off at some point to look after myself then to let her know.
When it became overwhelming, I took her up on her offer. I needed a day. I just needed a chance to pull myself together. To feel better. I organized some work with a colleague, who was supportive and more than happy to oblige.
My manager, however, was not. After being told if I ever needed some time off to look after myself, when it actually came down to it, she thought it was inappropriate and unacceptable. So into work I went. Of four contract employees I was the only one who was not renewed; a very real outcome of admitting to poor mental health.
An inability to do your job because you have a cough and a sore throat are viewed as an inability to work effectively in the short term. It won’t be remembered in a month. But excusing yourself from work for a day because you’re spiralling with anxiety and need to step back and get on top of it can be noted by those who have never experienced mental illness, with a more long-term view of your abilities and future performance. It can be viewed as a flaw in your entire character.
STAYING HOME BECAUSE OF MENTAL HEALTH IS MORE COMMON THAN YOU THINK
According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, every week, 500,000 Canadians do not go to work due to their psychological health. Seven million will need help for mental concerns in a single year but many will not seek it out due to the stigma attached to mental illness.
Workers can produce competent work or even thrive in their job performance all while suffering from a short-term or even chronic mental illness, but the stigma exists that even short-term incapacitation is not just short-term ineffectiveness but an inability to handle your job at all.
So, commonly, employees lie.
Shelly, who works in communications, says she has only taken two sick days because she was physically ill, the rest have been in order to care for her mental health. She believes it’s much safer for job security to claim you have a migraine or cold than it is to admit to having a panic attack.
But just like a migraine or a chronic illness, once you’re through a panic attack or get your symptoms under control you can get back to work the next day at peak performance. In many workplaces however, telling the truth about mental illness can have a very real and detrimental impact on your career. And the stress of lying about it can make your mental health even worse.
The Mental Health Commission of Canada also states that the loss of workplace productivity due to mental health issues costs the national economy between $33-$50 billion per year (per year!), so it’s vitally important that workplaces put structures in place to support their staff’s health, both physical and mental.
REDUCING THE STIGMA
Dr. Katy Kamkar, Ph.D., C.Psych., Clinical Psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Toronto, states that, though stigma still exists in our culture, at CAMH they “have noticed a reduction of overall stigma attached to mental illness with the help of ongoing mental health education and opening up the dialogue around mental illness to normalize the talk and encouraging seeking help.”
“With continuous education and policies and strategies around workplace mental health, workplace stigma will further go down given better knowledge, mental health education around signs and symptoms of mental health struggles and when to seek help, [a] supportive workplace environment and being provided with resources, help and accommodations when needed.”
We’re all in this together, so it’s time to take mental health seriously and truly support employees going through it. That’s why destigmatization is so important. We need to talk more about mental illness so people feel safe enough to disclose their illnesses without feeling scared of repercussion. So people can see that mental illness does not equate to incompetence. Initiatives like Bell Let’s Talk will hopefully broaden the conversation not just for one day, but every day. The more open we are about mental illness, the more support can be received from those who need it. As for employers looking for ways to adapt, this is a great starting point.
It’s time we started talking openly about our mental health. Join the conversation on Bell Let’s Talk Day, January 30, and help end the stigma around mental illness. For every text message (not iMessage) sent and mobile or long-distance call made by Bell Canada, Bell Aliant and Bell MTS customers, Bell will donate five cents to Canadian mental health initiatives. The same goes for anyone sending a tweet using #BellLetsTalk, watching the Bell Let’s Talk Day video on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat, or using the Bell Let’s Talk Facebook frame or Snapchat filter. But talking about it is just the first step: Visit letstalk.bell.ca for more ways you can effect change and build awareness around mental health.