When Kara Smith's brother took his own life six years ago, her family was completely devastated. Smith says her brother saw his mental illness as a weakness, and thinks he felt alone and unable to seek help.

"It must have been very isolating, confusing and lonely for him," she says.

Consequently, as general manager of recruitment company Talent, Smith is aware of the importance of her staff being able to speak openly and honestly about any mental health issue they may be experiencing.

"In my role as manager, I believe that sharing my personal experience can help open up the lines of communication," she says.


"I believe open, non-judgmental communication is one of the first steps to healing. Also, as a mum of a 10-year-old boy, I've been very conscious of encouraging and allowing open talk, and to not shut down conversations with him."

As just under 50 per cent of Kiwis experience mental illness or addiction at some time in their lives, many people in the workplace will be suffering right now, often silently.

"This is because many people experiencing mental illness feel it should be kept hidden," says Dr Jonathan Moy, "as it can be seen as a sign of weakness in the workplace and could negatively affect job security or advancement."

Moy runs Careerology, a career counselling clinic, and has previously worked as a psychiatrist treating mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety and psychosis.

In New Zealand's culture, he says, mental illness is often not considered a "real" illness and has been stigmatised to the point where people force themselves to work rather than admitting to mental health issues.

"It is important that employees speak honestly to their employers about issues that are affecting them such as stress, depression, anxiety and addiction, because hiding the situation takes energy and creates stress in itself," he says.

In general, men and women experience depression differently. While men tend to feel angry and irritable, cause conflict and blame others, women tend to blame themselves, avoid conflict and feel sad, apathetic, worthless and anxious.

Moy says that for people experiencing these feelings but finding it hard to open a conversation with an employer, it can be useful to prepare what to say in advance and perhaps take a support person into the meeting. He says people often talk about experiencing a sense of relief once they have opened up.

The repercussions of not speaking up can be severe. "Hiding your depression from your employer, especially when workplace stress is contributing to your deteriorating mood, can result in a negative spiral of worsening depression," says Moy. "Depression is a serious illness and can cause long-term psychological and social issues if not addressed or treated."

Businesses that don't encourage their workers to speak up and seek help for mental health issues are perpetuating the stigma, says Moy. "For employees to trust their manager enough to talk openly about their mental health, their needs to be a workplace culture that clearly shows managers are supportive and nurturing rather than punitive and dismissive of their staff."

He suggests managers spend time getting to know their staff and encouraging them to talk about workplace stress and coping strategies. "Perhaps the most important technique is actually listening. Too often managers interrupt or go for a solution before they understand the person in front of them."

At Talent, managers are encouraged to check in with their staff personally and professionally on a regular basis. "Managers are coached on empathy and sensitivity towards mental health issues and how to recognise when an employee might be struggling," says Smith. "And I've found that physical team-building activities can help break down communication walls and build up trust, which is also key.

Addiction, or dependency on substances, or activities developing as abnormal coping strategies to escape or drown out painful emotions associated with stress, depression or anxiety, can have serious consequences at work. "Some of the most common dependencies in NZ include alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and gambling," says Moy. "Alcohol and substance addictions can lead to missing more days at work, and the temptation to sneak drugs or alcohol into workplaces.

"Using them while working can obviously impair work performance and create hazardous situations or injuries. In such cases, the employer will need to take disciplinary and corrective action and may even have grounds to seek termination of employment."

Moy says if an organisation has an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), managers should be routinely reminding staff of its existence and in what circumstances to access it. Talent has an EAP in place to provide help to anybody experiencing personal or work-related problems, and every Talent employee and their immediate family has access to confidential, professional counselling services.

"As we spend a large portion of our lives at work, it's important to balance work with activities that enhance the quality of our health, and even more importantly, our life," says Smith. "We encourage our staff members to participate in activities that enrich their physical and mental wellbeing, and Talent International reimburses associated fees to an allocated sum per annum."

Employers should strongly consider offering staff benefits to enhance work/life balance, says Moy.

"Research shows staff are happier and more productive when they're given greater work flexibility. These benefits help staff feel supported and encouraged, and make it easier for them to deal with or recover from mental health issues."

If an employee should experience an acute mental health crisis at work, someone should stay with the individual at all times, says Moy. The manager should either contact a registered nurse from Healthline, 0800 611 116, or the local district health board Mental Health Crisis Assessment Team, or call 111 emergency services if there is imminent danger.