According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20.6% of U.S. adults experienced mental illness in 2019 (51.5 million people). If you are one of them, you are fully aware of the workplace stress that comes from grappling with mental illness while holding down a job. Working while living with mental illness is extremely challenging. A study found that as the severity of mental illness increased, employment rates decreased.
Along with the stress of managing the symptoms of mental illness, those suffering from mental illness often fear disclosing their illness on the job because of the pervasive stigma of mental illness. According to Forbes, many employees with mental illness show up to work even while battling symptoms: “Presenteeism (dramatically reduced productivity on the job) due to depression is rising much more sharply than absenteeism—suggesting that many are showing up but keeping their problems to themselves.”
Research shows that it is healthier for both employees and organizations to be part of a “psychologically safe” organizational culture. For employees, feeling the workplace is a safe place to disclose their mental illness reduces the stress in the workplace from keeping the illness hidden and may help them to be more productive. Forbes also notes the benefits to the organization: “There is a substantial body of research showing that organizations with strong psychological safety exhibit better performance, engagement, employee retention, and overall wellbeing.”
If you’re one of the many Americans battling mental illness, how can you find a psychologically supportive workplace unbiased by the stigma of mental illness, where you may feel safe disclosing your illness later on? Barring that option, how can you find a workplace that diminishes the stress of working with an undisclosed mental illness?
Here are four top suggestions, from pre-hire to on the job:
Look for signs your workplace is supportive
Does your employer have a diversity statement? Does it list “disability” in the statement? The Harvard Business Review also suggests checking if your employer “highlights disability affinity networks, mentor programs, and the accommodation process during new employee orientation.” If your employer does not have options like mentor programs or an accommodation process, you may want to consider looking elsewhere for a job. If your employer seems supportive, however, you may want to consider eventually disclosing your illness to them and reducing the stress in the workplace that originates from an undisclosed illness.
Get to know your supervisor or manager
What is your boss’ attitude towards diversity and inclusion or disability in the workplace? Once you know your direct manager well enough, you will likely be able to determine whether they are an inclusive leader who will not be swayed by the stigma of mental illness. Another Harvard Business Review article outlines six traits of an inclusive leader, including: visible commitment; humility; awareness of bias; and curiosity about others. Once again, if your employer is not truly demonstrating at least some of these traits, and your stress in the workplace has become difficult to manage, you may want to think about moving on and searching for a workplace with a more inclusive employer. However, if your employer clearly demonstrates inclusiveness, they may be the right person to whom you can disclose your illness.
Find a remote or flexible workplace
Especially during Covid-19, the standard 9-5 office job is no longer your only option. Now you can work remotely or work unconventional hours. Mental Health America explains how the remote workplace can reduce mental health symptoms, including reducing the daily commute, which can often induce stress. Survey respondents also described other benefits of remote and flexible work, including reducing distractions “and interruptions from colleagues (74%), keeping them out of office politics (65%), allowing for a quieter work environment (60%), and giving them a more comfortable (52%) and personalized (46%) work environment.”
Certainly, other difficulties, such as maintaining a healthy work-life balance, can crop up with flexible and remote work. Still, working from home is one solution for those struggling with mental illness who are searching for a more supportive workplace and haven’t found it. While you may not feel comfortable disclosing a mental illness at your remote workplace, the freedom to avoid the daily commute and stressful in-person interactions can reduce feelings of anxiety.
Use a skill-based hiring solution
Artificial Intelligence now allows job seekers to rank their skills and be matched quickly with an employer whose job opening fits their skills...and then be hired on the spot for an on-the-job evaluation. Geekbidz is one hiring solution that uses this approach. Ranking your skills online, without having to go through an interview, ensures you will experience a less stressful hiring experience; and knowing you’ve been hired for your skills rather your ability to project enthusiasm may encourage you if you’re struggling with workplace stress associated with a mental illness such as depression and ordinarily feel the need to put up a personable and engaging “front” to retain your job.
Battling mental illness on the job? Find a supportive workplace, or find a workplace where you can comfortably conceal your illness
If you are worried about holding on to your job because of the stress and stigma of mental illness, the best-case scenario is finding a supportive workplace or empathic manager to whom you can disclose your illness. If you can’t find that, however, remember that not all workplaces are as mentally draining as others. A remote workplace or skill-based hiring solutions may be a better fit for you than a demanding 9-5 office job where you are forced to project energy and enthusiasm you struggle to feel, in an effort to retain your role.