Should you disclose your mental illness to your employer?

Some may want to hide their diagnosis but is that the right way to approach mental illness in the workplace?

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To shine a light on this predicament, we spoke to Gleneagles Kuala Lumpur’s Clinical Psychologist and Neuropsychologist, Dr. Nivashinie Mohan. 

Gleneagles Kuala Lumpur’s Clinical Psychologist and Neuropsychologist, Dr. Nivashinie Mohan

1Twenty80: What are your thoughts on disclosing mental illness to an employer? 

Dr. Nivashinie Mohan: It’s not required by law to tell your employer about your mental illness. However, disclosing a mental illness is a highly personal choice. Whether you choose to tell your boss can depend on how much your condition affects your role at work. Some feel comfortable sharing with their employers whilst others don’t. Given the stigma of mental illness in Malaysia, most employees choose not to say anything to their employers but there are certain employers who have referred their staff for treatment.

1Twenty80: Should a person hide their mental illness?

Dr. Nivashinie: The decision someone makes will depend on how supportive they think their boss will be, how they are perceived in the organisation whether they are highly productive, good worker – and the culture of the workplace. 

If they choose to disclose their illness, they will need to explain the reality of the disorder as there are many misconceptions about mental illness out there. Your employer can accommodate your needs only if you inform them properly of your disability. 

However, having said that, some people with mental illness such as depression and anxiety are not affected at work and their performance may not be diminished by their illness. They still go to work, put on a smile and get through the job they are given. Perhaps their support system outside of work is strong and they are seeking help already. In these cases, perhaps not disclosing your illness may be a good option.

1Twenty80: How should an employer handle their employee who has a mental illness?

Dr. Nivashinie: The first thing Human Resources (HR) should do is make sure the person is not at any risk of harming and hurting themselves or others. 

Next, they should seek professional help or at least suggest seeking help to their employees. Psychologists, counsellors and psychiatrists would be the professionals to consult.

1Twenty80: Are mentally ill people capable of entering the task force and what are the requirements?

Dr. Nivashinie: Depending on the type of mental illness, most people with mental illness are capable of entering the task force. Human resource professionals need to be particularly knowledgeable about mental impairments that could affect employees or applicants. 

In addition, HR must be familiar with laws and rules on hiring and managing persons with mental health disabilities, with the various ways of making reasonable accommodations for such applicants and employees, and with the workplace education that might be needed to encourage proper regard among co-workers for such employees. 

HR should also be aware of the potential challenges involved. Although many employees with psychiatric disabilities may be indistinguishable from others in the workplace, some may occasionally be disruptive. Mental illness includes a broad range of symptoms and behaviours, and it is not a simple process to determine whether someone actually has a mental illness. Learning more about mental illness is one step every employer can and should take.

My advice is if you think your mental illness will affect your performance at work and if your prospective employer needs to know about it then disclose your illness.

1Twenty80: What are the steps that a person should take if they feel (mentally) unwell at work?

Dr. Nivashinie: The first step would be to get properly diagnosed by a qualified mental health professional. Do not self-diagnose or self-prescribe medication. A manager should never make assumptions, but signs of ill mental health can include:

  • Changes in usual behaviour, mood or how they interact with colleagues. 
  • Changes in the standard of their work or focus on tasks. 
  • Appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn and reduced interest in tasks they previously enjoyed. Changes in appetite and/ or increase in smoking and drinking.
  • Increase in sickness absence and/or turning up late to work.

Not everyone who experiences a mental illness will exhibit the signs above but it’s crucial for employers to create a safe workplace environment where employees can voice out if they experience any symptoms.

1Twenty80: Do visits to a psychiatrist or psychologist qualify as a medical certificate (mc)?

Dr. Nivashinie: Yes, visits to psychiatrists and psychologists qualify as an MC. Psychiatrists are allowed to prescribe MC’s whilst psychologists can write letters informing the employer that their employee has been in to seek treatment without disclosing the personal nature of their conditions. If their health conditions do not require an MC then their mental health professional can recommend that perhaps the employee is given time off to attend sessions and resume work after. 

1Twenty80: What is your advice to people with mental illness who might be hesitant to join the workforce?

Dr. Nivashinie: My advice is if you think your mental illness will affect your performance at work and if your prospective employer needs to know about it then disclose your illness. Perhaps you can request for some adjustments to your workload, or request for support to help you stay at work and assist your recovery. However, if you feel like you can cope and your illness will not affect how you function at work then perhaps it’s best not to disclose your illness to your employer.

1Twenty80: What is your advice to employers who might not know how to handle their employees’ mental illness? 

Dr. Nivashinie: I would say learn and educate yourselves about mental illness. Having an employee with a mental illness is a good reason to learn and read up about the condition and how you can help without being discriminatory or prejudiced. When mental health issues, such as chronic mental stress, burnout, anxiety or depression are present, performance management needs to be supportive and clear. 

The ability to focus on employee strengths while still supporting productivity and performance is an important skill to develop. This can be particularly effective when working with employees who may be experiencing mental health issues.

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