Speak Out: We Need To Reverse This Trend Of Suffering In Silence At Work

A survey has found that nearly half (49%) of us in the UK don’t feel comfortable when it comes to talking to our employer about mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. This is in spite of the fact that 1 in 4 people will suffer from a mental health issue at some point in their life.

Mixed anxiety and depression is the most common mental health problem in the UK, with 7.8% meeting the criteria for diagnosis. On top of the struggles involved with these conditions there is the shame and embarrassment we feel about discussing it with others and seeking help.

Mixed anxiety and depression is responsible for one fifth of days lost from work. Suffering in silence worsens the mental health problem for the employee. It also doesn’t benefit the employer in any way – since it’s kind of difficult to go into work and be productive when depression is zapping your energy and motivation. So it’s important to know when, how and why to open up to your employer about your mental health.


Decide whether it’s worth speaking up

Certain factors need to be taken into account before deciding whether you want to tell your line manager about depression or anxiety impacting your work. The Australian mental health charity Heads Up has created a useful list of pros and cons when it comes to speaking up about mental health at work.

For instance, if you feel that your employer will be supportive, then it could make a world of difference to your wellbeing if you’re honest about how your mental health is affecting your performance at work. In addition, opening up could help stop office gossip spreading, prevent disciplinary action, improve your work schedule and even encourage other colleagues to speak out.

But there are times when it might not be worth it. You might feel that your mental health issues are too personal; it might not actually affect your performance; you’re not sure if the information will stay confidential; you’re worried about being judged; you think it could affect your career prospects; or you don’t actually need support at work, since your support network outside work is strong enough.


How to open up 

If you do decide to tell your manager about a mental health condition, you should do so in whatever way you feel comfortable. You’re not under any obligation to reveal the details of your mental suffering. But, of course, if you feel it’s in your interest to be specific, then do so.

Beyond Blue has also released a document which highlights that speaking up about mental health is an individual experience. It is sensitive information that you’re sharing. Your employer isn’t a close friend, family member or therapist, so be selective and careful about what you say and how it’s phrased.


Why it helps to talk

It has been mentioned that suffering in silence about your mental health is not in your best interest. This is true. If your employer is not aware, or does not understand, why you’ve been struggling at work, then you might suffer additional anxiety about disciplinary action or job loss. Suffering from anxiety and depression at work does not mean you will lose your job or you have to quit. It means that you are facing a barrier – at no fault of your own – which can be overcome, if the support is there.


Challenging misconceptions

Mental health stigma is largely influenced by misconceptions and stereotypes about various conditions. Anxiety is often mistaken for normal worry and depression is often used in conversation to mean the same thing as having a low mood. ‘Anxiety’ and ‘depression’ as terms have both an everyday and a clinical meaning.

The confusion of the two is what can lead people (including employers) to think that if anxiety and depression affects one’s responsibilities, then that person must be weak or lazy. For example, in a report about workers suffering in silence, one line manager said:

It is not OK to discuss these things. It is regarded as the employee’s problem and their problem alone.

This is part of the problem. If the employer said this about a physical disability, it would be seen as an incredibly harsh thing to say. Talking about mental health at work, in an appropriate context, can help reduce this kind of stigma, by normalising the condition in question and creating a space in which empathy and understanding replaces dismissiveness and judgement.


Making progress

Coinciding with Mental Health Awareness Week, Legal & General launched a campaign to reduce mental health stigma. This was in light of the fact that only 4% of employees who have experienced depression and 5% of employees who have experienced anxiety felt comfortable talking to their manager about it. Yet 78% of employers believed their employees felt comfortable discussing it. This kind of mismatch shows that it’s absolutely necessary to tackle mental health stigma.

And remember, the Equality Act 2010 means that if you are being treated unfairly by your employer because of your mental health, you have the right to challenge this kind of discrimination.


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