General News — 28 January 2015

A new Canadian survey finds that nearly 40 percent of workers would not tell their managers that they have a mental health problem. However, approximately half of those surveyed report they would help a coworker if the worker has a mental health concern. Nevertheless, the perception that a coworker’s mental health diagnosis may be harmful to others remains an issue. The findings come from a new survey by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).  The survey, headed by CAMH Senior Scientist Dr. Carolyn Dewa, reveals that workers have both negative and supportive attitudes about mental health in the workplace. The study was published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

“A significant number of working people have mental health problems, or have taken a disability leave related to mental health,” said Dewa. Annually, almost three percent of workers are on a short-term disability leave related to mental illness. “Stigma is a barrier to people seeking help. Yet by getting treatment, it would benefit the worker and the workplace, and minimize productivity loss,” she says. In the survey of 2,219 working adults in Ontario, two key questions were asked: First, would you inform your manager if you had a mental health problem? And second, if a colleague had a mental health problem, would you be concerned about how work would be affected? Researchers then probed more deeply depending on the answers.

Among the 38 percent who would not tell their manager, more than half were afraid that it would affect their careers. Other reasons for not disclosing were the bad experiences of others who came forward, fear of losing friends, or a combination of these reasons. Three in 10 people said they wouldn’t tell because it wouldn’t affect their work. For some, a positive relationship with their supervisor was the primary factor that encouraged workers to tell the manager about their mental health problem. Supportive organizational policies were another factor influencing the decision to come forward, which was cited by half of those who would disclose. Findings in the current survey show that work colleagues are concerned that a co-workers’ mental health issue may lead to a dangerous work environment.

When asked if they’d be concerned if a worker had a mental illness, 64 percent said yes. More than four in 10 also indicated concerns about both reliability and safety. The perception does not match with reality as Dewa’s past research has shown that workers with depression who receive treatment are more productive than those who don’t. Without disclosing, it may be difficult to get treatment, as work absences for counselling sessions or appointments need to be accounted for, she notes. And safety issues can also be alleviated through workplace policies and procedures, as well as a trusting relationship with a manager. “The manager’s position is so important, and it’s really important to invest in training them,” said Dewa. On a more positive note, she said, “One surprising thing we found was that 50 percent said they were concerned because they’d want to help their co-worker.” About one in five also worried about making the mental health problem worse. For organizations that want to address the issue of stigma around mental illness, she said a number of elements need to be in place, including their policies and procedures, as well as facilitating positive relationships among managers and coworkers. Dewa also believes that having a positive example of supporting someone with a mental health problem is also helpful.

This article first appeared Psych Central, 27 January 2015.


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