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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How Can Employers Support Mentally Ill Employees?

12178605035_786bf7b47f_mPeople with mental illness often find it daunting to find a job, much less keep one. It may be difficult for a person  with a mental illness, like depression or anxiety, to balance their psychological needs with the stress and demands of a job. The challenge of balancing work and mental health often acts as a barrier to mentally ill people trying to find employment. However, the structure, stability, social exposure, and meaning that employment can provide means working is vital for mentally ill individuals. In addition to the challenges presented by mental illness itself, a significant facet of the issue is that employers may be unwilling to hire and accommodate them. In a recent SAGE Open article, “Employers’ Perspectives on Hiring and Accommodating Workers With Mental Illness,” authors Janki Shankar, Lili Liu, David Nicholas, Sharon Warren, Daniel Lai, Shawn Tan, Jennifer Couture, and Alexandra Sears demonstrate just how urgent it is that employers help to improve the employment rate of the mentally ill. The abstract for the paper:

Many individuals with mental illness want to return to work and stay in employment. Yet, there is little research that has examined the perspectives of employers on hiring and accommodating these workers and the kinds of supports employers need to SAGE Openfacilitate their reintegration into the workforce. The aim of the current research was to explore the challenges employers face and the support they need to hire and accommodate workers with mental illness (WWMI). A qualitative research design guided by a grounded theory approach was used. In-depth interviews were conducted with 28 employers selected from a wide range of industries in and around Edmonton, Canada. The employers were a mix of frontline managers, disability consultants, and human resource managers who had direct experience with hiring and supervising WWMI. Data were analyzed using the principles of grounded theory. The findings highlight several challenges that employers face when dealing with mental health issues of workers in the workplace. These challenges can act as barriers to hiring and accommodating WWMI.

You can read “Employers’ Perspectives on Hiring and Accommodating Workers With Mental Illness”  for free from SAGE Open. You can also find more open access content from SAGE Open, including articles on subjects like management, communication, education and more, by clicking here.

*Mental illness image attributed to Alachua County (CC)