Mental Health and Disabilities in the Workplace: We Should Have A Conversation

It’s the New Year. Do you set resolutions or goals? I do. More like intentions. Suggestions. Just do your best.

On January 1, posts pop up across social media, extolling the virtues of mental health. We need to take it seriously. We need to care for ourselves. We need reasonable work hours, expectations, flexibility. The workplace is changing. Employers are out of step with what employees want. C-suite step up and lead!

It begins along these lines:

“We should have a conversation. About mental health. And the workplace.”

“So true.”

The posts pop up with the confidence of a daffodil convinced spring has arrived, only to be buried by a foot of snow. The determination, enthusiasm, and momentum of the mental health initiative, like the overeager daffodil, vanishes.

There is agreement without action. A few months later, the posts pop up again. Let’s have a conversation. About mental health in the workplace. It’s overdue, it’s necessary.

“Let me know.”

And then the same optimistic flowers peek hopefully through the soil, tentatively bloom, and are trampled by apathy and busyness and inattentive dogs.

It’s not just mental health, but a broader conversation of diversity and inclusion. Of workers with disabilities — visible, invisible, and perceived — and their inclusion in our workforce. Where are these employees? Why are so many individuals with disabilities unemployed? People who can, want, are skilled and ready to work. Where are they?

Let’s Begin with The Uncomfortable: Employees with Mental Illness

When should we begin the discussion of mental health in the workplace? In many corporate cultures, talking about mental health feels more psychologically “safe” than a conversation about mental illness.

Discussions about mental illness are uncomfortable. Some would prefer to keep “those people” — those diagnosed with mental illness — out of the workplace. As organizations begin to consider the complexity of ‘mental health,’ mental illness is a topic parked in the chairs along the walls of the conference room. It doesn’t have a seat at the table. Yet. Perhaps we aren’t ready to discuss the reality of mental illness in the workplace. Workplace violence on the nightly news remains our point of reference.

So many of our perceptions of the “mentally ill” are derived from sensational media, disproved theories, and stigma. Here’s what I’ve heard over the years, from my colleagues: mentally ill people are dangerous and irrational. You know, they’re disturbed and violent and have guns. They’re scary. That guy at the end of the block? Keep your kids away from him.

Mental HEALTH, though, sounds more inclusive, less threatening. It’s an initiative. Posters and stickers and slogans reminding employees that it’s okay not to be okay. Take a day off. Delegate. Fitness trackers. Points for taking sick days and not working on vacation. Leaving email at work. Unless you have a mental ILLNESS or disability. This initiative isn’t for you. Please, just be normal. You’re making everyone uncomfortable. Legal? No. Common? Yes.

Mental Illness vs. Mental Health: Are they the same?

What’s the difference, and does it matter? The Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division, summarizes the differences.

‘Mental health’ and ‘mental illness’ are increasingly being used as if they mean the same thing, but they do not. Everyone has mental health, just like everyone has health. As the World Health Organization famously says, “There is no health without mental health.” In the course of a lifetime, not all people will experience a mental illness, but everyone will struggle or have a challenge with their mental well-being (i.e., their mental health) just like we all have challenges with our physical well-being from time to time. (Canadian Mental Health Association BC, 01/04/20).

Mental Illness Myths

There are many, but here are some of the most prevalent myths about mental illness:

People with mental health problems are violent and unpredictable.
People with mental illness cannot tolerate the stress of holding down a job.
Personality weakness or character flaws cause mental health problems. People with mental health problems can snap out of it if they try hard enough.
Once a friend or family member is diagnosed with a mental illness, the prognosis is dire. Recovery is impossible
Therapy is a waste of time. Take a pill, exercise, and try a support group.

The endurance of these myths reinforces the perception that mental illness is something to fear, a condition self-inflicted by a disregard for mental health. But mental illness is just that, an illness. According to the American Psychiatry Association, nearly one in five adults in the U.S. experience some form of mental illness. Most illness is treatable, and most people do not experience significant disruption to their daily routines. Yet many individuals who disclose disability to an employer and request accommodation experience vulnerability, shame, ridicule, and loss of employment.

Let’s talk about that, too.

Employment and the Law

Disability’s association with irrationality, irresponsibility, incapability, immaturity, and unreliability drives its incompatibility with professional identity. Let me be clear. Most companies understand and want to follow the law. Those who are not in compliance are either unaware of their responsibilities or uninterested in them. That is, I believe people want to do the right thing; they aren’t sure how. In this situation, a person with a strong H.R. background — and perhaps a disability — can serve as a significant asset.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that employers make reasonable accommodations for employees and students with disabilities or perceived disabilities. This requirement continues to perplex employers and schools. Some institutions disagree on whether accommodations are required for individuals with mental illness. The ADA is clear: yes.

People with disabilities who receive reasonable accommodations are just as productive as other employees. Employers who hire people with mental illness report good attendance and punctuality as well as motivation, good work, and job tenure on par with or greater than other employees. When employees with mental illness receive effective treatment, it can result in lower total medical costs, increased productivity, lower absenteeism, and decreased disability costs (, 1/04/20). To emphasize, hiring people with disabilities can SAVE an organization money and time.

During recruitment for an open position, disabled applicants may be unfairly labeled “unqualified,” a backdoor to discrimination. The hope is that a “skills gap” or “pipeline problem” can justify the dearth of disabled workers. It cannot. In general, employment rates for those with disabilities are significantly lower than for those without disabilities. For individuals with specific conditions, such as those that require assistance with self-care, employment rates were approximately 16 percent in 2017.

We know that those with visible and invisible disabilities CAN and DO work. I would argue that outreach to underrepresented populations, is a best practice in talent acquisition in general.

Should We Have a Conversation?

Is it time for a conversation now? I think so. About mental health, mental illness, disabilities, workforce diversity, and organizational culture.

Send me your availability. It won’t be long before the daffodils bloom.

For information on employment and unemployment rates for individuals with and without disabilities, reference maintained by Cornell University.

I write about everyday observations, and my dog.

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