After reading the The Hard Truth: The Reality of Disclosing Mental Health in a New Job last week, it is clear to say that there is an issue with employees feeling comfortable and confident to speak up and tell the truth about their mental health to their employer. This applies for both those with diagnosable conditions and those who simply needed some extra breathing space. So, where on earth does a workplace start in providing a safe disclosure process that makes employees feel as though it is OK to speak up?
What a loaded question.
But to come up with a solution, we first need to start by thinking about why people don’t like disclosing their mental health qualms and trepidations… Why are we so afraid of being honest about it?
Firstly, I remember when I just got the offer for a job that I had been aspiring to get for years. It was at a large Australian bank and I had worked so hard to be in a position that I had a likely chance in being offered the role I wanted. Three interviews later and a lot of anxiety in between, I finally received the verbal offer for the job. They told they’d send me the paperwork via email, and once I fill it out, they can send me the formal contract.
Similar to the story described in The Hard Truth article, I saw the medical disclosure form hidden amongst a bunch of other forms. I saw it and I knew exactly how difficult it was going to be for me to handle. Being open and honest about mental health to a close colleague or friend in person is one thing, but to write it in a cohesive way to a “piece of paper” on a PC is another thing.
I remember sitting there, deliberating for ages. I called my parents and asked for their advice. They told me to not say anything. I wanted to tell the truth, but everyone around me was being hesitant, so I started to feel as though I was crazy to tell the truth. I tried starting to write…
“Depression and anxiety, however it is managed effectively with medications and psychology” (Sort of accurate)…delete delete delete… I tried again “History of depression and anxiety, managed effectively, not currently present” (A little less accurate) …I looked at it again… delete delete delete… “Teenage history of anxiety, no longer present nor support needed” (Inaccurate but less scary).
Among all of these answers, what I really wanted to write was: “History of depression and anxiety. Currently high levels of anxiety. Managed with a psychologist and medications, however at time, extra support is needed by way of working from home options and flexibility with hours”
But everyone’s awkwardness and hesitation around me taught me that my opinion of being honest didn’t seem to be the right one. Seeing their hesitation made me realise that people weren’t confident in what it means to disclose your mental health when in a recruitment process. So, natural to being human, my fear overrode my rationality, and I wrote “Teenage history of anxiety, no longer present nor support needed”, which needless to say, wasn’t going to help me nor my employer. In my mind though, I was convinced that if I was honest, then the offer would be revoked.
A lot of the time what is holding us back is actually only one thing – it is that of our fear of repercussions. A fear of the fact that we’ve been potentially sold a false story that our employers might actually accept our mental health and be willing to support it. A fear that we will not be regarded as good enough anymore if we are open to the fact that we have a real and tangible medical condition. A fear that others won’t understand and that we would end up losing out as a result.
This isn’t the only way it has to be though. There are several ways in which an employer can help an employee overcome this fear, to help both their employee joining the company, as well as help the company know what support is needed.
- Set up a simple mental health disclosure process in onboarding
Pretty simple one to begin with. So far, I’ve been making the assumption that all companies have a medical disclosure process. Many companies, though, may not currently have a process for this. Therefore, potentially for your company, the first step may be to implement a disclosure process for new starters joining the company. This could be as simple as a form or a conversation, as part of the recruitment process.
- Have an authentic reason for why your company sends a mental health disclosure
Once this disclosure process is set up, take some time to review the process to see how it is being delivered to the new employee. For example, being sent a medical declaration form via email without a precursor can be pretty frightening for someone who has something to disclose. Therefore, a simple idea would be to make sure that the people who are sending the disclosure form are also giving the new employee an understanding of exactly why they’re sending it.
In other words, telling the employee that the point of a medical disclosure form is so that they are able to accommodate and support that employee for any type of medical need – including that of mental health.
- Use the right language and keep your new employee informed
Thirdly, and even more importantly, in this process, the team needs to ensure that the language in the form complements this genuine stance to provide support. For example, instead of simply asking the question, “Have you had a history of mental health?”, adding in “If so, what accommodations or support is required from the workplace to ensure your safety?”
- Time to shine and showcase what your company does to support mental health!
Now, if you really want to go the extra mile, you could even add within the form a list of the different types of support you offer in the workplace – i.e. flexibility, personal leave, peer support, mental health first aid – this will allow the employee to feel safer before they’ve even had to enter the workplace, and hey, you also get to show off all the amazing stuff you do? It is a win-win, right?
These four steps are simple and easy additions to any already existing recruitment process. What are you waiting for? Get those disclosure processes pumped with some mental health love!