Discrimination in the Workplace: Mental Illness
Your disability is silent, invisible and episodic. Yet somehow, word gets out. Everyone in the office knows of your diagnosis. Next, you hear them whispering; they ask, “Is he crazy?” You’ve heard these murmurs before. They seem to follow you from job to job. Do coworkers understand that treating someone differently because of a mental health problem is discrimination?
The implications of discrimination in the workplace can be devastating. Read what two Winnipeg advocates for mental health are doing in order to protect their rights.
The Reality Of Mental Illness In The Workplace
Pretend for a moment that you have a post-graduate degree in a field that you love – one that helps people and that you feel passionate about. Then, because of blatant stigma against you and your mental illness – a disability protected by law in Canada – you have to give it all up and eventually find work for a meagre hourly wage in order to survive.
According to the CMHA, the employment rate of people with severe mental illness ranges from 70 to 90 percent. “These statistics are particularly disturbing in light of the fact that productive work has been identified as a leading component in promoting positive mental health and in paving the way for a rich and fulfilling life in the community.” In other words, one of the best ways to experience better mental health is to work. However, working in an environment that is discriminatory can actually lead to more mental stress than it solves.
CBC news reports that stigma against mental illness is a disturbing new trend. “The Manitoba Human Rights Commission says complaints dealing with mental health issues are up and Chris Summerville, head of the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society, said the stigma is getting worse and employers need to take this seriously.” One of the advocates mentioned in the article, David Albert Newman, is frank about his battles with paranoid schizophrenia. It cost him his job as a chartered general accountant with one of the world’s most renowned accounting firms. After leaving his career path, Newman retreated to the safety and lower-stress environment of a restaurant position while he recouped, but ultimately his message is that each individual with mental health problems has the right to be employed in the field of his or her choosing.
How Can We Support Coworkers With Mental Illness?
As part of the Canadian workforce, it is important to ask, “How can we be proactive in terms of supporting colleagues who have mental illness?” How can we be sensitive, discreet and inclusive?
Understanding the following points and being able to put them into action is a great starting place:
• 20 percent or 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental health problem.
• No two people who experience mental illness are the same. Everyone brings unique qualities to the workplace. Give people a chance.
• Understand the stressors about the cyclical nature of mental illness and the transition to a work environment.
• Learn facts about violence and mental illness: CMHA states that “The real fact is that people with serious mental illness are responsible for four percent of all violence in society”
• Managing mental illness requires more than self-discipline. A combination of genetics, biology, physical and social environments contribute to these conditions. Medication and outside support may be necessary.
• Silence consents to prejudice and discrimination in the workforce.
Creating Barrier-Free Work Environments
Diversity training is helpful in identifying the kinds of discriminatory behaviour that we can all lookout for. There are still a number of attitudinal barriers that prevent people with disabilities from experiencing the same work environment that all society deserves. These kinds of barriers are best abolished through accurate information and exposure.
Be on the lookout in your office for attitudes like negative backlash, superiority, and negative stereotypes. Newman’s points about persons with mental health problems may not be enough to change the tide of discrimination, but his voice may be able to make the difference for someone who deserves a chance to be successful in the workforce.