Employers need more sensitization and awareness about mental illness

The absence of intentional policies means that there's little inclusion for people with mental illness in our workplaces. What can organizations do?

White Swan Foundation'sRanjitha Jeurkarspoke to two HR personnel* for a reality check: What systems do organizations have in place to support people coping with mental illness continue working, or return to work? Here’s what they said.
*Names have been withheld on request 

How inclusive are workplaces towards people with mental illness?
A: In my opinion most workplaces are not equipped to deal with people with any mental illness no matter how severe. This isn’t deliberate. Awareness and training of not just HR personnel but also other staff could help. Some organizations may overcompensate and try to play the role of a counselor/therapist while others may just not be sensitive to the needs of the person.

B:The exclusion is probably not intentional. A person with mental illness may be aloof, or may not actively make an attempt to include themselves in workplace groups. Another challenge arises: if a person has an illness such as schizophrenia and no one is aware of what it actually is, they are not able to support. In the case of people with physical disabilities, the challenges are more visible. The organization is able to make modifications and offer support. How can you support someone with a mental illness? That’s not clear because we largely lack awareness, training and sensitivity. And most often, people with mental illness are worried about disclosing their condition. And that makes it much harder.

What are the typical challenges that people with mental illness face in the workplace?

A: People with mental illness could face several challenges including difficulty working with a team of people who may all have different temperaments. They may find it hard to manage their emotions and communicate with others. They may have difficulty dealing with the manager, especially if the manager’s leadership style doesn’t suit them. They may have to tackle organizational policies that are rigid, and don’t support the needs of a person with mental illness. In addition to this, they may not be able to join any of the informal networks within the organization, and are likely to be seen as the outsider.

B: When someone says they are physically ill, we don’t probe further. When they get back to work after a leave of absence, they are expected to perform at the same momentum as before and make up. This is not always possible for someone with a mental illness. And this poses a huge challenge.

What are the challenges for employers who hire people with mental illness?

A: Most employers have neither the awareness nor the confidence required to deal with people with an illness. There is a lack of empathy for someone who may need a more flexible interpretation of organizational policies. Often, there is also a belief that HR staff are the only ones responsible for addressing the needs of people with mental illness; so other staff don’t take ownership towards supporting them.

B: When a person has a mental illness, their performance is likely to drop. This impacts the company’s work in the larger scheme of things. How do you balance care for the person who is ill, with your team’s efficiency and performance? How do you handle this situation where the equation within your team changes? What do you do to the role of the individual? Initially, companies try to support them. After a few months, they are at a loss as to how to do that – especially if the person is not performing, or needs time off often. They may have changing capabilities – how do you handle that? How flexible can you afford to be? Do you have the resources to accommodate their changing needs? And all the time being aware of how this is impacting the company’s bottom line...


What are the workaround options for both employers and employees?

A: Freelancing and consulting roles might be an option. But nowadays, employers can also build in more flexibility into when and where the job is performed. The employee has to show results and gain trust but even in a full-time role, there is an opportunity for the employer and employee to explore different work arrangements.

One other option is to do a trial. This could be in the form of an internship or volunteering, or short-term contract so both sides get a chance to see if there is a fit.

B: The employee can choose to take an ‘easier’ role – freelancing, or even switch fields to a job that has less stress or pressure. Or they can choose to join organizations that are known to be inclusive – SAP and Lemon Tree are two that come to mind immediately. It’s easier to work in a place where the diversity already exists. Another option is to speak to the manager or HR about your challenges. Tell them you’re going through a rough patch, and may need support. Here it’s important to be specific about what support you may require. Use your judgment about how your disclosure may be accepted, and communicate with caution. You can help them understand that you may need some ease, or some time off.

Are there particular organizations or sectors that are known to be friendly to those with special needs arising from their mental illness?

A: I think the nonprofit sector may be more open to accepting people with mental illness. I will add that nonprofit organizations still need to invest in creating awareness and building a work environment that is sensitive to people with mental illness. Some government and public sector organizations are also known to be more friendly compared to other sectors. Some large forward-looking software organizations have strived to be more accepting as well.

How can the organization and the employee negotiate something that works for both?

A:I think it’s important to establish trust between both parties. As I said in response to your earlier question, a trial period can help set the stage to build a workable solution.

If you're just recovering from a mental illness and are going to a job interview, what do you look out for? How much information do you share?

A:Some work cultures may be more polite in comparison to others. So, I would try to find a lot of information about the culture of the place, the nature of the manager I will be reporting to and the team I will be part of.

It’s generally good to share any significant issues that may impact your work or interactions at the workplace. This is especially important if you want the employer to make any flexible work arrangements for you. This is part of building trust.

The other question is when to share this information? Should it be at the first call, or the last round of interviews when you are sure to be selected or after an offer is made? I would definitely think that the first or second face-to-face interview would be a good idea to discuss this matter probably with the hiring manager and HR person together.

What are the long-term fixes we need to bring to our system to create inclusion for those with mental illness?

A: If we are to create inclusion for those with mental illness, we have to begin by showcasing work arrangements that have been successful. We need to have more trainings on diversity and inclusion, including discussions around disabilities in general, and mental illness in particular. Organizations need to engage counselors or therapists to understand the condition and develop awareness of how to deal with a person with a mental illness

B:Most corporates today think only about profit and money. This means there is little consideration for other factors. We need a mindset shift for things to change. It’s also important to include mental health in the conversation when we speak about disability.