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Time to end discrimination against people with mental illness


Workplace discrimination against people who are suffering from a mental illness remains common, writes Niki Vincent.

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Around 45% of Australian adults will experience a mental illness at some point in their life. One in five of them will experience that mental illness in any given year.

With prevalence at these levels, undoubtedly every South Australian will know a family member, friend, colleague, neighbour or acquaintance affected by mental illness in the last 12 months – either directly or indirectly.

Despite this people living with mental illness are often perceived negatively or experience discrimination as a result of their condition. This stigma and discrimination is experienced most in our workplace.

A survey of Australians published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry found that over half of the respondents felt they had been sidelined for job opportunities after disclosing their mental illness to prospective employers.

For those already working, a quarter of respondents reported to have experienced stigma, discrimination or avoidance in their workplace as a result of their mental illness. The most common frustrations were employers treating mental health issues dismissively, or not acknowledging the intersection of mental illness, behaviour and work performance.

Here at the Equal Opportunity Commission we received almost 300 inquiries about discrimination relating to mental illness in the past five years. More than a third of those inquiries became formal complaints. In line with the national findings, 62% of those complaints relate to employment.

The nature of these complaints often reflect a misunderstanding of common psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety, and a level of inflexibility or intolerance on the part of the employer. We see this across a broad range of small to medium size South Australian businesses – and some government departments.

So what do these complaints look like?

It is often the case that what most people would consider ‘common practice’ in the workplace creates unnecessary stressors and exacerbate symptoms of mental illness. This can lead to absenteeism, which may be inferred as unreliability. One example would be an employer conducting a routine observation of an employee, which, due to pre-existing anxiety issues, prompts the employee to have a panic attack – a condition which is treated dismissively by their colleagues.

Interactions such as this lead to the employee feeling ‘ashamed’ and ‘like a burden’. In some cases, the impact of mishandled management of staff living with a mental illness has been so severe that they experience severe depression and suicidal thoughts.

Employers have a responsibility to create safe and supportive spaces for employees, including those who experience mental illness. This obligation is enshrined under the Work Health and Safety Act 2012 (SA).

However, an obligation under the law should not be the motivating factor here. There are compounding benefits to go above and beyond when it comes to safeguarding employee wellbeing. Safe and healthy workplaces boost organisational morale, increase productivity, and improve business efficiency.

Price Waterhouse Cooper has found that for every dollar spent on successfully implementing an appropriate action to address mental health conditions there was a $2.30 return on investment. These are gains of improved productivity, reduced absenteeism and lower numbers of compensation claims.

Taking preventative action is simple and can include mental health education programs for leaders and employees, well-being checks incorporated into performance management structures, support for employees to work flexibly or at reduced hours, and return-to-work programs with a therapeutic focus.

Appropriate actions in the workplace also minimise the harm caused to individuals. Seeking recourse through statutory bodies such as the Equal Opportunity Commission and the Fair Work Ombudsman can be a taxing process for someone with mental health issues, and can cause them further and unnecessary distress. If employers were equipped to establish inclusive working arrangements, or to resolve any grievances immediately, it would not require the intervention of state services.

Sadly the discrimination of Australians with mental health conditions does not stop in the workplace. The balance of complaints the commission has received in relation to mental illness has occurred in the provision of goods and services. This includes being asked to leave an entertainment venue without sufficient grounds, being removed from courses of study for poor performance without consideration of the student’s pre-existing mental health conditions, or disrespectful interactions with customer service representatives in retail or service industries. In this case employers have a role to play in educating their staff about mental illness and gearing their services to be mindful and inclusive of all clients.

With all this in mind, the most common form of stigma is defining someone by their illness rather than who they are as a person. For this reason, language is a powerful device to support on one hand, or to harm on the other. Describing somebody as a ‘person experiencing psychosis’ is accurate, whereas labelling someone, as ‘a psychotic person’ is degrading and harmful. The same applies for a range of conditions, including the common ones such as depression or anxiety.

Knowing how prevalent mental illness is in our society it is up to all of us to learn more about it and to positively engage with those experiencing it. Speak up when you hear stereotypical or inaccurate comments about mental illness but most of all listen and learn from those experiencing it.

Niki Vincent is South Australia’s Equal Opportunity Commissioner.

InDaily is publishing a series of stories to mark Mental Health Week, produced with the cooperation of the Mental Health Coalition of SA.

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