Mental Health Disclosure at Work

Learn how to navigate disclosing mental health conditions effectively in the workplace.

Supporting image of woman working from home

Disclosing mental health conditions at work

By Dr Djuna Hallsworth
Support Groups Peer Leader at One Door Mental Health

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen Australian workplaces and learning institutions place greater emphasis on the mental health and wellbeing of their communities. While conversations around mental health and illness may generally be more frequent and frank than in prior decades, those of us affected by mental health conditions—whether personally or by association—can still be uncertain about how much to share and with whom.

According to the National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing (NSMHW), which surveyed 10, 000 Australian households between 2020 and 2022, it is estimated that 43% of the population has experienced a mental disorder at some stage. It is now common for workplace hiring processes to accommodate applicants’ conditions and circumstances by making reasonable adjustments, both throughout recruitment and once work commences. In addition, changes to the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 in 2023 saw an increase in the responsibility of employers to reduce the risk of psychosocial hazards causing harm to employees. The recognition of the significant role that one’s workplace and colleagues, particularly senior colleagues, can have on mental health is an important step in enabling persons with mental health challenges to enter and remain in gainful employment.

One does not, of course, have to have a diagnosed mental illness in order to feel psychological distress at, or as a result of, work. However, for people who are affected by persistent and unpredictable changes in or difficulties with emotional regulation, energy levels, interpersonal relationships, physical capacity, or concentration, adhering to the demand to be consistent, productive, and sociable may be particularly challenging for those in gainful employment. Pressures to work between specified hours with little room for flexibility, to interact in socially sanctioned ways dictated by the given workplace, and to effectively separate one’s personal life from one’s working life have been the norm up until very recently. For those looking for work, interview processes often evaluated one’s ability to present as un-erringly confident in a situation with an unequal power dynamic, and to respond immediately and with clarity to unknown questions—regardless of whether these skills were relevant to the role. These barriers have seen people with mental health challenges and other disabilities historically excluded from the workforce.

It's understandable, then, that the prospect of disclosing a mental health condition might provoke ambivalence: it certainly has for me. On the one hand, it can be extremely helpful for managers to be aware of the personal circumstances that might affect their team members. Disclosing can also relieve the internal conflict that can arise from feeling as though you are hiding something about yourself.  Disclosing can allow the workplace to introduce adjustments that improve not only your experience but that of other current, as well as future, employees. On the other hand, though, many mental health conditions are, at best, misunderstood and, at worst, highly stigmatised.

What personally concerns me is not the risk of overt discrimination or termination, but that I will be reduced to a person with a particular condition. This worries me because, despite our collective efforts to strive for more accurate and equitable representation of mental illness in news, media, and across society, stereotypes and biases do prevail. To minimise the possible negative outcomes, I have carefully chosen who to disclose to, and only done this when I feel it is directly relevant to the role I am undertaking.

Ultimately, unless your condition has a direct bearing on your job, you are not obligated to disclose it. You may wish to if you require adjustments in order to do your job more effectively and if there is mutual trust and respect between you and your colleagues. Things to look out for when considering disclosing include:

  • whether or not your organisation has a Disability Inclusion Action Plan or similar policy that lays out the procedure for implementing reasonable adjustments;
  • whether the organisation has policies that cover discrimination, bullying, and equal employment opportunity;
  • whether workplace health and safety induction processes mention psychosocial safety;
  • and the organisation’s overall approach to diversity and inclusion.

Not all organisations will have the scope to include all of these elements as part of their operations, but they are a good place to start when determining whether it is safe and advisable to disclose your condition.