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Mental health: To disclose or not to disclose at the office

Mental Illness Disclosure in the Workplace

Professors Laurent LapierreJane O'ReillySilvia BonaccioMagda DoniaIvy Bourgeault and scholars from University of Calgary and Saint Mary's University.

Non-academic partners:
Human Resources Professionals Association (Ontario), the Ordre des Conseillers en ressources humaines agréés, Excellence Canada, Causeway Work Centre, and the Canadian Psychological Association.

A multidisciplinary study led by the Telfer School will explore the causes, manifestations and consequences of employees’ disclosure of their mental health problems at work. The findings should better inform executives and human resource professionals on the development of policies for work climates that encourage, rather than discourage, employees from seeking support for the mental health conditions with which they are struggling.

According to lead researcher Professor Laurent Lapierre of the Telfer School, it was vital for this study to focus on disclosure as there is still an invisible stigma around mental illness, even though mental health issues such as depression, burnout, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a higher public profile today than they once did. “The decision to disclose a mental health condition at work is a difficult choice for almost anyone – a teacher battling PTSD, a bank manager facing panic attacks, a nurse recently diagnosed with clinical depression.”

“On the one hand, it’s often a necessary step to receive the needed support and accommodations that enable them to stay on as contributing members of the organization,” Professor Jane O’Reilly of the Telfer School explained. “But at the same time, disclosure can also lead to social mistreatment and career setbacks.”

For this reason, it is important to equip executives and human resource professionals with a better understanding of the workplace factors that explain why individuals are more or less comfortable with disclosure, said Sharon Lewis, Director of Programs & Services for Causeway Work Centre, one of the project’s partners. “We need to be able to identify how workplaces can ensure that disclosure yields positive outcomes for the individuals concerned, and for those with whom they work.”

This study will be the first to use a multitude of rigorous research methods to examine how different workplace factors relate to employees’ willingness to disclose their mental illness at work. It will look at organizational characteristics (e.g. explicit policies on mental health), work unit factors (e.g., interdependence among coworkers, degree of mental illness stigmatization within the unit, work climate/culture within the unit), and individual factors (e.g., perceived severity of one’s mental health issue, anticipated consequences of disclosure versus concealment).

Professor Lapierre noted: “With such a high proportion of employed Canadians experiencing mental illness, there are huge costs incurred by both employers and society as a whole. Given that reality, we found it rather surprising that there is little research work specifically addressing the constellation of factors that may impact disclosure. Ours will be the first study to explore and define the various ways in which employees divulge their mental illness at work in Canada.”