Two Faces of Mental Illness in the Workplace

Understand the Person and the Mask

Two Faces of Mental Illness in the WorkplaceSay the words mental illness in a meeting and be ready to witness uncomfortable reactions. Most people will avert their eyes, shift their body position, try to shrink, drop their heads or even pull out technology. It’s about avoidance and hoping the topic will be dropped.

Mental illness is misunderstood and feared in many settings, but often the worst environment is in the workplace. Companies have a responsibility to support their employees and create a positive atmosphere where mental health issues aren’t feared. But to do so, managers and supervisors may need to get past their own stigmas around mental health conditions.

Statistics show one in five Canadians will experience a diagnosable mental illness at some point in their life ( In a team of 12 people, two to three of them will currently have a mental illness, have had one previously or may encounter one in the future.

The spectrum of mental illness can include anxiety, depression, eating disorders, phobias, panic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety is the most common mental health problem in Canada with 9% of men and 16% of women experiencing it at any given time (Mood Disorders Society of Canada Workplace Mental Health)

If it’s so common, why is it a source of discomfort and avoidance? Because there are two faces of mental illness.

One face is very dark because mental illness is a mystery. Many people can’t understand how competent, fully-functioning people can turn into strangers who can’t show up, handle the basics or keep it together at work.

When there is a lack of understanding or an inability to make sense of something, it becomes feared. Additionally, there is a strong stigma around mental illness because people try to see it the same as a physical ailment. Take for example the flu. It is clear how it is acquired (germs), the effects (fever, achiness, stomach upset) and how to get rid of it (bed rest, warm liquids and over the counter remedies).

This problem-solution logic can’t be applied to mental illness because it isn’t seen like a cough or understood like a headache. It is viewed as something to avoid and judge. Judgement leads to stigma.

Mental illness is not discussed openly and is camouflaged for cover and anonymity. This contributes to mental illness’s dark face where those affected don’t want to be identified and those around them don’t want to recognize the problem or the person behind the condition.

The second face of mental illness is right in front of you – it is your colleague. The person who sits near you, attends meetings with you and shares the lunch or coffee room. This is the person you have worked with for months or years, spent endless hours with or even confided in.

People who suffer from mental illness have similar lives to everyone else: school, sports, activities, hobbies, relationships and kids. The challenge for these everyday people is they may not have the physical, mental or emotional ability to stave off the effects of problems and solve them as easily as they may have previously. Their mental illness adds another layer of challenge that may make everyday annoyances seem overwhelming.

Those looking from the outside in make mental illness more complex and psychologically disabling than it needs to be. Or, they may over-simplify the condition with the belief of “just need to be more positive, motivated or relaxed.” These perspectives lead to judgement, avoidance and a silent struggle allowing stress and symptomology to increase in both frequency and intensity.

When people experience the worsening of mental illness, it is hoped they reach out for help. This can be classified as their crisis point and might be the time when they start a medical leave from work.

The two faces of mental illness come together in the workplace and have a huge impact on companies. Research and statistics show:

The fastest growing cost sector for occupational disability in Canada is psychiatric disorders.

The psychiatric disorder that accounts for 60% of these costs and most days lost on the job is depression.

Annual losses to the Canadian economy due to mental illness in the workplace is $33 billion

When companies calculate the cost of mental illness, they need to include measures such as sick days, absenteeism, engagement, productivity and turnover. Statistics Canada found that lost productivity from presenteeism was at least 7.5 times greater than productivity loss from absenteeism. It is estimated that presenteeism costs Canadian businesses $15 to $25 billion dollars per year.

The cost of one employee with a mental illness averages $1,500 but if that individual is able to receive treatment early, disability leave (which costs companies an average of $18,000) may be avoided. Dewa, C., Chau, N., & Dermer, S. (2010). Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 758-762.

While costs and prevalence are factual, next steps aren’t nearly so concrete. From my work with companies and therapy clients I know the solution is not with the Human Resources (HR) department. By the time HR is called to handle an employee issue, there has been a clear gap between the manager’s role and responsibility and the ability to manage the problem. HR is brought in to be the heavy and for someone with mental illness, this meeting is further evidence of their challenges. This is guaranteed to increase the fear and discomfort they are already experiencing.

It is not fair or practical to expect HR to be the heavy hand while also dolling out understanding, support and encouragement to someone they don’t know well. HR is not equipped to assess if an employee has a mental illness or step in where the manager backed off.

When managers and supervisors have responsibility for others, there is a requirement to identify issues, clearly communicate options and problem solve with staff. Constantly working together means supervisors have unique understanding of employees who might be struggling with a mental illness.

The role HR can play is facilitator. They can connect the supervisors to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) centres or outside resources to educate them on mental illness and how to better manage someone with one.

Tackling the two faces of mental illness in the workplace means having managers take the lead to:

  • Educate their team about mental illness and its impact
  • Dispel the mystery, fear and stigma
  • Create open conversations with employees who suffer from mental illness so support and resources are available
  • Promote health and well-being practices so personal issues can be discussed and managed

HR needs to ensure supervisor ownership is clear and accepted as 100% their responsibility. HR can also set up avenues for continuous education for supervisors through email, newsletters and online resources and may also play an occasional consultative role when discipline is not needed. Time to stop adding “manage problems with employees they don’t know well” to HR’s list and create supervisors with skills to better manage staff, especially those with mental illness.

There is ample access to educational resources and professionals to openly talk about mental illness, accurately describe what it looks like and how to talk about it. No longer should the two faces of mental illness exist in the workplace where people hide it or hide from it. Start the change in your company to educate supervisors to manage their staff well and effectively help employees with mental illness.

At Pam Paquet and Associates, we often see workplaces struggle with mental health issues.  Before frustration gets out of control and medical leaves increase, let our experience bring awareness and learning to your staff leaders. Check out our Employee Assistance & Management Coaching Program that addresses these issues and more. Want to be in touch with me directly with your questions?  Please contact me at or 604-349-8660 to explore solutions for your managers and teams.

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This entry was posted by arksquared and is filed under Mental Illness.