A long-running gag in film and television comedies is for an employee at a corporation who may be in trouble to invent an illness covered in the policy handbook, such as alcoholism or drug addiction. In those stories, the employee then cannot be fired and all kinds of mechanisms are invoked to show sensitivity and compassion. 

What never gets played for laughs is suicide or mental health. Even in Hollywood culture, invariably inclined to faux tolerance and where all bad behavior is dismissed when a celebrity checks 'into rehab', anything related to mental illness beyond 'my therapist says' will cause most people to give a wide berth from then on. 

It's not much different in the rest of North America, where a new survey by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) finds that nearly four in 10 workers wouldn't tell their manager if they had a mental health problem.

Artwork by Aegis Mario S Nevado. Link

Yet just because someone does not want to disclose their own issues does not mean they are not compassionate about it, even if they don't think others will be; almost 50% who learned of a coworker's mental illness would try to help.  Annually, almost three percent of workers are on a short-term disability leave related to mental illness.  

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. 

A positive relationship with their manager was the key reason given by those who would reveal that they had a 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.
Some findings in the current survey underscore why people may be reluctant to reveal a mental health problem at work. 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. 

"Stigma is a barrier to people seeking help. Yet by getting treatment, it would benefit the worker and the workplace, and minimize productivity loss,"  Dr. Carolyn Dewa, head of CAMH's Centre for Research on Employment and Workplace Health (CREWH), said in their statement

Dr. Dewa's past research has concluded 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 counseling 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, says Dewa.

On a more positive note, she says, "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.

Published in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.