This post was written by Jessica Brennan, Charityworks Trainee 2014/2015. and was originally published on CW360 in February 2015.
There are two facts about me you should know. The first is that I started my first full time job in September 2014, through the Charityworks graduate programme. The second is I have depression. I was diagnosed almost two years ago.
Starting a new job is always intimidating. There are concerns most people share as they arrive at a new workplace: Will I get on with my colleagues? Will I do a good job? Will I enjoy this new role? On my first day, I had an additional concern: do I disclose my depression? I’ve always taken pride in my open approach to mental health. Yet, as I started my first day, I found myself worrying how my condition would be perceived.
Research by Bupa found that 94% of business leaders admitted prejudice against mental illness was an issue in their workplace. Figures consistently point towards a culture where mental illness is something to tiptoe around. I was joining an organisation which works with people with mental health conditions. Of all workplaces, surely this one would be a safe environment to disclose my condition. But I felt lost. I didn’t know when to disclose, who to talk to, or what would happen afterwards. For the first time, I made the decision not to talk about my mental health.
Eventually I began to share my past with my friends. It wasn’t until February – when I had a negative run in with a colleague – that I told my manager. He was incredibly supportive, as I knew deep down he would be. So why was I intimidated by the prospect in the first place?
The reality is there is no script for disclosing in the workplace. People who have a mental health condition will often be familiar with sharing their story with many people: GPs, psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health nurses. The fear comes not from the thought of being honest, but from the lack of guidance. Disclosing to health care professionals is designed to be safe. It is their job to listen, after all. Disclosing to friends and family is daunting, but you know them and can use your knowledge to plan your conversation. Disclosing in the workplace lacks this security. Will my boss understand? Will I be treated differently? What do I disclose? How do I even begin? It can seem easier to keep quiet than to face the minefield of unanswered questions.
Charities have long focused on how to be open with doctors, and family and friends. The focus on mental health in the workplace is, in the grand scheme of things, a recent development. Disclosure isn’t the best path for everyone. Many individuals feel no need to discuss their mental health in the workplace. But without guidance and support, too many people are being forced to silence a part of their character. Changes in legislation and efforts to remove the stigma are essential, but employers must ensure every employee knows how to approach disclosure within that particular workplace. Talking about your mental health condition should never be something to fear.