Identity, Mental Health and Work

[We’re pleased to welcome author Hadar Elraz of Cardiff University. Hadar Elraz recently published an article in the Human Relations entitled “Identity, mental health and work: How employees with mental health conditions recount stigma and the pejorative discourse of mental illness,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, Hadar Elraz summarises the findings of her study:]

Experiences of mental health in the workplace

huma_71_2.coverThis article examines how identity is constructed for individuals with mental health conditions in the workplace. The study found that people with mental health conditions use their experiences to perform more effectively in the workplace. The same strategies that individuals put in place to manage their mental health can also be applied to prioritize workload effectively, promote mental health awareness and achieve work‒life balance.

In a series of 60 interviews, the study reveals how people with mental health conditions overcome stigma, judgement and discrimination to stay in employment and, in many cases, prosper in the contemporary workplace. Those who have experienced mental ill health have knowledge and expertise about the interface between work and their condition and ways to address them.

The findings shows how the individual sensitivity to these issues addresses all kinds of strategies to manage their mental health and working lives more effectively. The interviews revealed the following coping strategies used by the study participants to manage their mental health conditions:

Maintaining silence

Some respondents recalled how they would maintain silence, coping on their own against all the odds without requesting support. While anti-stigma campaigns and awareness training are not uncommon in many contemporary workplaces, interviewees still felt looked down upon and discriminated against. Non-disclosure might be one response to this type of hostile environment.
One respondent recalled how they “didn’t think people associated mental illness with people who are functioning in high-status jobs. [Instead,] people associate mental illness with people who can’t work.”

Sheer hard work

Others developed strategies to manage their mental health effectively alongside their responsibilities at work, to stay, cope and thrive in employment.

Doubling their efforts in this way led many respondents to reflect on how they have grown more resilient than their colleagues who have not experienced mental ill health.

One respondent said: “I am a strong character. [But,] I don’t think people realise how strong a character you are. They don’t have any reference, because they never suffered from it [mental health condition] themselves.”

Another referred to this as “sheer hard work”, adding: “I just absolutely feel like I’m working twice as hard as anyone else in the place to achieve the same level of output.”

Taking control

Study participants used self-taught and reflexive techniques as well as self-medicating to take control of their health and performance at work. Combining both soft skills and medical insight into their condition made many of the participants experts on managing their mental health conditions within and beyond the working environment.

One respondent said: “I have been doing that for years. I self-manage myself by taking mood stabilisers, anti-depressants […] finding one that works to get you up to a level where you can function.”

Public disclosure

While concealing mental ill health in the workplace was a key concern for many interview participants, some spoke of the positive outcomes associated with public disclosure.
Significantly, the interviewees that were more confident about the security of their employment found public disclosure raised awareness and improved mental health management. Motivated by a desire to share their experiences of mental ill health to encourage broader cultural change, these participants expressed eagerness to assist both employee wellbeing and organisational performance by openly disclosing their mental health experiences at work.

One respondent said: “I think it’s part of me. Why should I hide away? If I see other people, I think if I gave them a bit of insight and knowledge, maybe that’d save them from going through some of the things.”

Allaying their fear of stigma and discrimination, public disclosure represented a legitimisation of mental ill health within the working environment.

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Employees and Mental Illness

In 2018 the stigma of mental illness still plagues the workplace, along with the direct and indirect costs associated with healthcare and lost productivity. In the face of negative attributions attached to mental health conditions, how do employees manage their conditions as well as the demands of their jobs? How do organizations develop cultures and systems that allow employees with mental illness to thrive in their respective roles while minimizing the costs for workers and the companies who employ them? How is mental illness conceptualized as a unique social identity warranting increased attention in management research? What are the avenues for future scholarly attention?

A recent article offers insights and contributions to the literature, as well as raising implications for policy and practice. Kayla B. Follmer of Salisbury University and Kisha S. Jones of The Pennsylvania State University recently published “Mental Illness in the Workplace: An Interdisciplinary Review and Organizational Research Agenda” in the Journal of Management. With millions of adults affected annually by mental illness and many active in the workforce, the need is great to supplant the limited knowledge of many organizations and leaders on how to support employees with mental illness.

From the Abstract:

Given the prevalence of and consequences associated with mental illness in the workplace, we believe this review is both critical and timely for researchers and practitioners. This systematic review broadens the extant literature in both theoretical and practical ways in an effort to help lay a foundation for the organizational scholarship of employees with mental illness, a group that has traditionally been underrepresented in the management and industrial-organizational psychology literatures. After defining and conceptualizing mental illness as a social identity, we systematically review the existing empirical research on employees with mental illness across multiple fields of study. Using research that accounts for individual, other, and organizational perspectives, we present a model that outlines the performance, employment, career, and discriminatory outcomes that characterize the experiences of individuals with mental illness as well as individual and organizational strategies that moderate the relationship between having a mental illness and experiencing those outcomes. Together, this article provides a synthesis of what is known about employees with mental illness while also highlighting avenues for future scholarly attention.

Read the article for free until the end of April.

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Mental Health and Work: Stress and OB, Part 2 of 3


With economic uncertainty
and job insecurity on the rise, stress levels are also at increasingly higher levels. With effects on physical and emotional health, the toll is high for individuals and organizations. Today we’re looking at recent research addressing issues such as the effects of commuting to work; the relationships between ill health and employment; the role played by managers’ ethical and family-supportive behavior; the extent to which organizational justice and job characteristics shape employees’ work attitudes and health; and a review of the literature on the relationship between stress and well-being.Stress APA quote

Click on the titles below to read the articles, free through June.

Do Long Journeys to Work Have Adverse Effects on Mental Health? by Zhiqiang Feng and Paul Boyle, both at University of St. Andrews, Scotland, UK, as published in Environment & Behavior

Mental and physical health: re-assessing the relationship with employment propensity by Gail Pacheco, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand; Dom Page and Don J. Webb, both at University of the West of England, Bristol, UK, as published in Work, Employment & Society

Operationalizing Management Citizenship Behavior and Testing Its Impact on Employee Commitment, Satisfaction, and Mental Health by Beth A. Rubin and Charles J. Brody, both at University of North Carolina-Charlotte, USA, as published in Work and Occupations

The interaction between organizational justice and job characteristics: Associations with work attitudes and employee health cross-sectionally and over time by Constanze Eib and Claudia Bernhard-Oettel, both at Stockholm University, Sweden; Katharina Näswall, University of Canterbury, New Zealand; and Magnus Sverke, Stockholm University, Sweden and North-West University, South Africa, as published in Economic and Industrial Democracy

Work Stress and Employee Health: A Multidisciplinary Review by Daniel C. Ganster, Colorado State University and Christopher C. Rosen, University of Arkansas, as published in Journal of Management

Tomorrow’s post: Mental Health and Work: Leadership and Well-Being, Part 3 of 3


Mental Health and Work: Employee Engagement, Part 1 of 3

Results from the U.S. National Co-morbidity Survey, a nationally representative study of Americans ages 15 to 54, reported that 18% of those who were employed said they experienced symptoms of a mental health disorder in the previous month.

During Mental Health Awareness Month (#MHM2014) it seems fitting to examine research on a problem affecting many employees that is often overlooked.  Mental health is a serious issue in the workplace,  but how do we deal with it as employees, coworkers, employers, HR personnel and anyone else touched by it? What needs to change to ensure healthier employees – and healthier workplaces?

This week, in a three-part series, we’ll explore recent research on mental health issues with their relevance and importance in the field of business and management. As the authors of our first featured article note,

“The nature of today’s labor market requires organizations to be productive and competitive to survive and grow, since they are constantly confronted with the pressure to be profitable as fast as possible. Thus, workers are expected to be psychologically connected to their work, proactive, and committed to high-quality performance standards, to collaborate with others, to be energetic and dedicated, and to be absorbed by their work. Simply put, ‘today’s organizations are in need of engaged employees.”

But are those struggling with mental health issues able to be engaged as this suggests? The research literature offers insight into individual, as well as corporate, issues related to mental health (including engagement and well-being), which is where we start today.

An article published in the Journal of Career Assessment by Patrizia Villotti, University of Trento, Italy; Cristian Balducci, University of Bologna, Italy; Sara Zaniboni, University of Trento, Italy; Marc Corbière, Université de Sherbrooke, Québec, Canada; and Franco Fraccaroli of University of Trento, Italy, “An Analysis of Work Engagement Among Workers With Mental Disorders Recently Integrated to Work,” looked at work outcomes, along with the  importance of social support from coworkers and supervisors, and occupational self-efficacy. “Among the general population and individuals suffering from other disabilities, people with mental disorders face severe difficulties in participating and integrating in the contemporary work world despite the evidence that they have the potential and desire to work. The purpose of this study is to determine the validity of the work engagement construct among mentally ill workers and to develop a nomological network delineating the relationship of work engagement with its antecedents, and its consequences in this specific population.” Click here to read the article.

An article published in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies by Brad Shuck, University of Louisville  and Thomas G. Reio, Jr., Florida International University, “Employee Engagement and Well-Being: A Moderation Model and Implications for Practice,” examined the degree to which psychological workplace climate was associated with personal accomplishment, depersonalization, emotional exhaustion, and psychological well-being, and whether employee engagement moderated these relations. Click here to read the article.

An article published in Human Relations  by Else Ouweneel, Utrecht University;  Pascale M. LeBlanc, Eindhoven University of Technology; Wilmar B. Schaufeli and Corine I. van Wijhe, both at Utrecht University, “Good morning, good day: A diary study on positive emotions, hope, and work engagement,” studied potential positive within-person relationships, including positive emotions, work-related hope, and the three dimensions of work engagement on a daily level. Click here to read the article.

Tomorrow’s post: Mental Health and Work: Stress and Organizational Behavior, Part 2 of 3