Come clean with your boss to ease burden

By Sally Webster

Fashion designer Denise L'Estrange Corbet. Photo / Babiche Martens
Fashion designer Denise L'Estrange Corbet. Photo / Babiche Martens

Depression and anxiety are the most common mental issues. It's not something to be sniffed at - the Ministry of Health has been funding mental illness since 1997, when a $12.6 million purse lasted five years. Now New Zealand spends in excess of 2008-09's $1.2 billion costing to support mental health and dissolve the misunderstanding around it.

In the "Like Minds Like Mine" television campaigns last year, we were introduced to two friends reflecting on sticking together through depression.

The setting was in a kitchen or on a park bench; there was no talk of work, but not necessarily because they couldn't. What of the 16 per cent of employed people who experience psychological problems?

Consider an advertisement where a general manager supports her sales manager through the onset of deep depression by discussing the creation of flexible work schedules, the re-assignment of tasks to colleagues and regular liaising with family members and doctors. It might sound unrealistic at first, but these measures are described as Health and Safety in Employment Standards in a 2007 New Zealand study.

If you were to substitute the scenario of managing depression at work with managing it on the rugby field, with Graham Henry supporting Dan Carter after his groin injury, the measures would look perfectly reasonable. The public would expect nothing less.

Former All Black John Kirwan is familiar with the stigma surrounding mental illness. "I realised that I had an illness, not a weakness," he says.

"This is key in learning to accept one's self. I'm confident enough with what I've learned now that I'll never go back to those really dark places again. I believe that if I'd been able to talk about it I could have got help a lot sooner."

But surely, during the terrifying periods of depression he suffered prior to treatment, he showed symptoms that were apparent to everyone he worked with?

"Surprisingly, you can mask it very well. Often I would try and avoid it by 'getting on the booze' for a night out with the boys. But I'd feel so much worse afterwards.

"When I told colleagues, they said they had no idea."

Kirwan says avoidance tends to prolong the illness: "You look for every excuse in the book to avoid admitting there is something wrong with you; is it this job that's getting me down, you ask."

He reckons that what is technically termed as disclosure is better done during the onset of illness.

"My advice is to tell your boss straight away. My mistake was I didn't think anyone would understand it.

"When you face up to it, things are more simple to work out. Can I still do my job? If I can't do my job, how long do I need for treatment? Can I do my job some of the time and not others?

"I'd want to know if I was an employer. If you don't disclose your illness, you risk them thinking you simply can't do the job, without knowing the reasons behind your changes in performance."

Faced with the prospect of discrimination on top of an illness, many choose not to disclose. Discrimination can come in the form of hostility, harassment, or even scrutiny so intense it could instigate, or even worsen, symptoms.

Marijke Batenburg, a Mt Eden-based psychologist with experience in dealing with professionals, says self-disclosure is avoided because the person fears the consequences will be catastrophic.

"When a person is experiencing anxiety or depression, a simple event like a boss walking past and not looking directly at them could lead to thoughts like, 'They didn't look at me, they don't like me, they're considering letting me go. I'd better look for another job; what if I don't get one? If that happens life won't be worth living ..."'

She says 10 per cent of New Zealanders suffer from a serious mental illness to the extent that they require significant regular treatment. But for the other 90 per cent, she estimates that half of those are under some strain that is either being treated or could easily lead to illness if left unchecked.

"I've heard more and more success stories of staff going to their managers or seniors and disclosing that they have a personal or psychological health issue that will require time off and treatment. More often than not, that manager will respond supportively."

Batenburg says if a person has not disclosed an illness that is clearly affecting their job, a manager could offer some supportive advice, perhaps in conjunction with addressing another issue. However, this is where bosses need to be careful. Under the Human Rights Act 1993, it is illegal to ask an employee questions that could "reasonably be understood as indicating that the employer had an intention to commit discrimination".

Denise L'Estrange Corbet, co-founder of the World clothing brand and passionate mental health advocate, says as an employer she is wary of approaching staff members, even if she suspects they are ill.

"There is so much that you cannot do or say these days because of the Privacy Act and the idiocy of political correctness.

"If I thought an employee was suffering from a mental illness, I am not certain if 'by law' I am allowed to broach the issue. If I was wrong, I would be taken to task, I am sure. But if they did tell me, I would ensure they sought medical help."

L'Estrange Corbet is no stranger to mental illness. The designer has suffered from depression all her life, even attempting suicide at age 14.

Are creative workplaces more accommodating of the cyclical nature of a mental illness?

"No. All 'creatives' are sensitive, and actually nobody likes being criticised. But life is tough and, unfortunately, people can be cruel.

"I got involved with the Mental Health Organisation not to represent a 'woe is me' campaign, but so that people with depression were not portrayed as a bunch of nuts needing pity."

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