MAKE A DIFFERENCE | workplace culture / mental health / wellbeing

Mental Health at Work: A Guide to Disclosure

Disclosing a mental health condition or disability to a workplace can be a daunting prospect. You may query whether it is indeed wise to do so at all. I’m afraid I cannot give you a definitive answer. However, I can outline a few facts and tips from my own experience around this topic to give you tools to make a more informed decision.

Let’s start with the legal side and hopefully demystify some of the rumours around mental health disclosure at work. 

The Equality Act

Whether you tell your employer about a mental health condition or disability is actually up to you, it’s not a legal requirement to disclose, however, if you have not disclosed your condition you will not legally be covered by the Equality Act if down the line your illness, condition or disability affects your work.

Under the Equality Act 2010, the definition of a disability is: 

“You’re disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.”

The Equality Act also states that even if you have a condition that has got better, you are still protected should it come back. Should you fall under this definition you have legal protection against discrimination in the workplace and can challenge any behaviour you deem discriminatory in a court of law.

You may have noticed in the news, or on social media, increasing numbers of cases being reported where ex-employees have won compensation against discriminatory employers. The fact that this is being increasingly reported on signifies a significant shift and a positive step toward reducing workplace discrimination. This is good news.  

But here’s the snag, it only counts if you have already disclosed your disability to your employer. Don’t tell them, and you probably are not protected. 

This can pose significant problems. The irony is that you may not wish to tell your work as you don’t want to be treated any differently. Some may think this a wise move as it is undeniable that there is still stigma and discrimination against mental health conditions in many workplaces.  However, by keeping quiet to protect yourself from discrimination, you are actually in a weaker position to challenge it. 

What this means is that if you get to a point where disclosure is necessary, perhaps your condition is starting to affect your work, you need a day off or you become very unwell, you have no legal protection to challenge your work should the worst happen i.e. they let you go, or become in any way discriminatory towards you because of your illness.

This leaves the employee in a vulnerable position with essentially no legal leg to stand on. Of course, one would hope that no workplace would pray on this vulnerability, but unfortunately, I can say from personal experience, it does happen.

Should you always disclose? 

In my opinion, in a word, no. Unfortunately, and unfairly, you do need to be a little careful about who to and when you disclose a mental illness as it can still impact on your ability to secure a position in certain workplaces that are stuck in the dark ages. 

I would love to advise you to be proud and honest in all situations as it is nothing to be ashamed of. One day the working landscape will wake up to this fact and you will be safe to disclose your personal challenges in any work environment.

The fight for fair treatment is happening and I fully believe we are working toward an understanding, accepting and adjusted working society with the flexibility to accommodate the millions of talented workers slipping through the net because they can’t secure work. But, we are not there yet. So, what can you do? 

Arm yourself with knowledge 

The trick, and it’s not a quick one, is to do your research before opening up at the recruitment stage. Take some real time investigating the company you are looking to work for. Scour through your networks and seek out other employees of the company to ask them what the culture is like. If you have any kind of diverse characteristic, a mental health condition included, my advice would be to seek out companies that are outwardly and proudly putting out diverse and inclusive messages, such as businesses that have a mental health staff network.

Look at their messaging online, look for companies that offer true flexible working (I don’t mean an hour off on Friday). But do also seek others that already work there to make sure the company practises what it preaches. 

If you had a physical disability you would have to research the company you wanted to work in to ensure they would be able to make the reasonable adjustments necessary to accommodate, for example, a wheelchair. Think of this as the same. If you have a mental health condition you may need reasonable adjustments and to protect yourself from awkward conversations. Knowledge is key. 

Finding the Right Role 

Go for a suitable role; if you struggle with stress I don’t advise working in occupations that are known to be highly stressful with short deadlines. Do your background checks to make sure both the company and the job are a good fit for you.

Don’t forget, the  interviews are not just so that a company can find out about you, it’s also your opportunity to find out about them. You don’t have to tell them you have a mental health condition in an interview and I’m afraid to say that, unless you already know they won’t discriminate against this, I wouldn’t mention it at this early stage.

It’s not relevant, it’s your skills and personality they are interested in and you could miss out on the role if they make assumptions about you due to their own ignorance and lack of understanding.. 

In Conclusion

If you follow the advice on researching the company first, hopefully you won’t meet interviewers who discriminate against mental illness. But in larger companies, in particular, it’s very difficult to determine the level of understanding of individual managers. The company may indeed be great, but the individual may not be.

You know and I know that mental illness does not mean you cannot work. It’s about finding the right working environment for you. With diversity and inclusion spreading its message across the modern workplace there is a growing choice of companies that are outwardly accepting and understanding of mental health conditions and ready to accommodate them. 

Seek them out and remember they’d be lucky to have you. Good luck. 

If you want to understand more, have a read of one our Minds Anonymous articles on this topic here

Other sources of useful information on this topic include:

Research by the team at Tilburg University that is starting to unpick the conditions under which disclosure is helpful or a harmful.

UK Government guidance: “When a mental health condition becomes a disability”

Acas which gives employers and employees in Britain access to free, impartial advice on workplace rights, rules and best practice.

Business Disability Forum a not for profit membership organisation that exists to create a disability smart world by linking businesses, disabled people and government.

This post by Terry Streather also gives concrete guidance.

About the author

Louisa “Wizzi” Magnussen is a broadcaster, journalist, copywriter, website designer and content creator with over 12 years’ professional industry experience. Louisa is the founder of wiz-media.co.uk and mental health initiative mindsanonymous.com, which provides a safe space to share mental health stories anonymously. The initiative was set up following Louisa’s own struggles with mental illness.  In its first 6 weeks Mind Anonymous engaged people in 40 countries.