Should I tell my employer about my mental illness?

by Charles Millett

In a week when Prince Harry, Lady Gaga and some prominent business leaders, including the Chief Executive of Virgin Money, have spoken of their own battles with mental health conditions, have we finally reached the stage at which an employee can open up to their employer about their own mental illness without fearing the consequences?

The first thing to make clear is that mental health is such a broad definition.  It covers a wide range of illnesses, just in the same way as physical health covers anything from a bruised knee through to terminal illness.  Each particular condition can vary widely in its severity and symptoms. 

It has been estimated that one in four people will suffer from a mental health condition during their lives.  This may be an over-estimate; it may equally be a significant under-estimate.  Many people do not seek treatment for mental health conditions for a variety of reasons.  They may be reluctant or unable to identify that they are unwell.  They may feel shame and that they are showing signs of weakness.  They might even simply be too unwell so seek help.  

Statistics such as the one quoted above are unhelpful in tackling mental illness, not least because it sends out the message that if you do accept you are suffering from a condition, you are in the minority.  For every one of you, there are three people who won’t suffer from a mental health condition.  For somebody struggling to come to terms with how they feel, such statistics can add to their feelings of worthlessness and despair rather than conveying the fact that upwards of 15 million people in the UK are, have been, or will be, in a similar predicament.

The question for many people is what, if anything, they should tell their employer and their work colleagues.  It is easy to assume that because celebrities are willing to open up about their personal struggles with mental health conditions, everybody should tell their employer openly about the personal demons they battle.  In reality, it is not that simple.  Even if the employer shows sympathy and understanding on the surface, who is to say that deep down there won’t be an assumption that you cannot cope, cannot be trusted and/or are “trying it on” to get sympathy or to excuse underperformance?

In practice, many people only end up notifying their employer once they have gone off work due to a form of mental illness.  The first the employer hears about it is in a note from the employee’s GP, commonly citing “work related stress”, “stress”, “anxiety” or “depression”.  Absence may then extend for weeks and months – even years.  It may end up with employment being terminated on the grounds of long term incapability.

The public comments of celebrities and business leaders in opening up about their own challenges with certain forms of mental illness can only help to make society more tolerant and understanding towards those suffering from mental health problems.  It is, however, only the start. The day when one can ask one’s counsellor the question: “should I tell my employer about my illness?” and receive the candid response “of course you should” will be the day when we can truly say that society has accepted that mental illness is a part of everyday life and is certainly not a sign of weakness.