Mental Health Disability Disclosure at Work: A Candid Discussion of Why We Don’t Disclose Part 2

Last month, we began the discussion of why employees living with mental health disabilities aren’t comfortable disclosing their disability. This month, I want to continue this candid discussion by addressing the elephant in the room – STRESS.

Employee Concern: No matter how good I am at my job, people will view me as weak, lazy, lacking in perseverance, and unable to handle difficult tasks and hard deadlines.

Have you ever heard any of the following said to, or about, someone at work?

  • “This is a stressful job. Are you going to be able to handle it?”
  • “Am I going to be able to count on you? I need people who are going to be all-in on this project.”
  • “Are you sure this role is right for you? It requires a certain type of person who isn’t easily discouraged.”
  • “That’s not good. You know this job won’t get easier, right?”

When these questions are asked when someone discloses a mental health disability or requested an accommodation for a mental health disability, it perpetuates a culture of stigma. Creating this type of culture, may not only result in that employee being unlikely to approach their employer again around disclosure or accommodations, but in today’s environment may lead to them seeking employment elsewhere. These types of questions also demonstrate for others living with mental health disabilities that their employer will not accommodate people with mental health disabilities. Instead of making a judgement call about a person’s ability to handle stress, because they do or do not have a mental health disability, focus conversations on performance and job role functions.

In the nearly 20 years since I began supporting recruitment processes for large companies and federal agencies, I have never once had a manager tell me that their job role isn’t stressful. Every job has responsibilities that cause stress and every manager I speak with says, ‘but my job is different.’ Every single one.

Let me give you an example. One of the job roles I recruited for frequently early in my career was help desk associate. A help desk associate had to take calls from people who were having trouble with their computer. One of the most important things to understand about this job role is that no call ever placed to the help centers was made to tell people that things were going well. Every call was someone who was having an issue and needed help – meaning they were experiencing their own level of anxiety and looking to the person at the help desk to offer the solution. In addition, people working in these roles frequently had to work rotating shifts to ensure the help center was staffed 24X7. People also had to meet certain metrics associated with service level agreements for troubleshooting and resolving these issues.

So, is this job stressful? Let’s think about that.

  • Cranky people who may be unpleasant to talk to? Check.
  • Difficult hours? Check.
  • High productivity standards? Check.
  • Job role impacts other’s ability to be productive? Check.
  • Stressful? Check.

Yet, managers in other areas may say this job isn’t that stressful compared to the environment or job role they needed filled. I had one employer tell me their customer-facing job role was more stressful because it dealt with the public, which meant that unlike a helpdesk role where people dealt with mainly businesspeople calling about a technical issue, they had to talk in-person to all people who entered. Any one of these people could be easy to work with, or could be difficult to work with, depending on the day. Not only did the candidate for this job role have to be adept at handling this large scope of people, but they also needed to handle the waiting area where all of these people who were so different were placed together. Can you imagine the types of stressful situations arising in a small waiting area?

The employee that would be a good fit for this job role would also have to be comfortable with the security protocols necessary with working with the public in this capacity. This meant working in an environment where there were metal detectors, a security team checking people as they entered the building, and bulletproof glass panels for their protection. Again, it is an easy decision to identify that yes, this job could be stressful.

But, which of these jobs is more stressful?

To me, the answer to this question is doesn’t matter. Which of these jobs is “more stressful” depends on the subjective views of the candidate and not any mental health disability diagnosis. Some candidates would excel in both of these job roles. For other candidates, only one of these jobs would be a good fit, and for others, neither of these jobs would be a good fit. People with mental health disabilities could fall into any one of these categories – just as people without any type of disability could.

In my own experience, it’s not that there is or isn’t inherent stress in the position, it is the qualities and competencies the candidate has that determines their fit. Focusing on the ability to handle stress isn’t really the determining factor – it’s the environment and the work done in that environment. So, for example, in these two job roles, some competencies necessary include the ability to resolve conflict, troubleshoot, multitask, and communicate well.

Finding people with the right competencies doesn’t mean that the job doesn’t have stress – it just means that the candidate will be better equipped to handle the particular stressors of that job role. It also moves the conversation away from seeing mental health disability, or lack thereof, as a job requirement.

Take me for instance. As I discussed previously, I am an individual with a mental health disability who experiences panic attacks. When I was in college, one of the jobs I held was in retail for a local toy store chain. Starting as a summer employee, I got to hear all through the season about how stressful it was to work at a toy store during the busy holiday season, and especially on Black Friday. Everybody thought that was something that would be stressful or anxiety inducing for a person in my situation, due to my panic attacks. However, I found that I thrived during the busy holiday season. In fact, my favorite day to work was Black Friday. The problem was that when they were determining that I would find it too stressful, they left something very important out of the equation – me. They saw only my disability and not my experiences and who I was as a person.

Most other employees hated working on Black Friday, the constant stream of sleep-deprived, deal-hungry people looking for toys we didn’t always have in stock had them counting the minutes until their shift ended. They hated that they had to get to the store at 4 AM or earlier to prep for the customers. They hated that regardless of the amount of effort put into keeping the store clean, they would still be staying late by at least an hour or two to try to straighten the shelves of merchandise after. I, however, found that I had the unique ability to look past customer grumpiness and see the motivation behind it – their determination to make the holiday special for someone they loved or, in some instances, their ability to purchase something for themselves for a more reasonable price.

I came into work wearing jingle bells on my shoes, antlers on my head, and a smile on my face. I loved how fast everything went and the general joy of mayhem surrounding me. There would be times when I would be on the phone talking to one customer, while ringing out another customer on my cash register. I’d dash around the store finding gifts that people couldn’t locate or flinging boxes open in the back stockroom to see if we had more of the products that were selling the fastest. At the end of the day my back hurt, my feet hurt, and sometimes my throat would be scratchy from talking to so many customers. Yet, I can remember leaving work feeling joyful, if exhausted. What I can’t remember is ever having a panic attack at work on a Black Friday.

I was much more likely to have a panic attack at work on days when it was slow. On those days, I could only go so far from my register to straighten aisles that kept the register within my line of sight – which wasn’t much. On these days, there were limitations on what I could do to be helpful. There could be hours when I would see only a couple customers. When I felt like I was contributing less and I had done, or redone the same thing multiple times, I could let my mind wander and think about all the bad things that might happen. I could speculate that if the store was too slow, it might not be good for business. That could impact the employment of those who worked with me and relied on their paycheck not for a little extra money, but as a main source of income. Those were days when people had time to complain and whine and nitpick and engage in unnecessary drama. That type of drama, created from boredom and, sometimes, a lack of work ethic, would cause my anxiety to flare. During those times, I was much more likely to experience a panic attack at work.

It is important to point out at this point that I’m not saying that would be the case for everyone with a mental health disability. The reason for this is that everyone’s experience with mental health disability is unique to them. What I am trying to underscore here, is that there is an assumption that stress is always too much for people with mental health disabilities, and that just isn’t true. It is that assumption that creates the belief in employees that they should never disclose a mental health disability and that they must maintain a façade of being able to perform in their job role without requesting accommodations.

What we end up with, societally, is a group of managers who know the job roles they fill are stressful and employees who think they will be seen as incapable if they admit their job is stressful or that they need help managing stress. Stigma and perception are a large part of what is at play here. Our society views and addresses, or doesn’t address, stress – and mental health in general. What I mean by that, is that societally both good and bad stress are tossed into one box labeled as stress without understanding the difference between them or what to do to manage different kinds of stress. Some stresses are good for you to feel, even if you have a mental health disability. What is good or bad for a person depends on the person. You can’t remove the individual from the equation. For many people, job insecurity or unemployment, is a much bigger stress-factor than anything they encounter in a job they are qualified for and have an interest in doing.

Qualifications and job interest are much more important considerations than trying to quantify the stress related to the job. Regardless of mental health disability, someone in a job role they don’t like or aren’t qualified to perform, will experience additional stress, and impacts to productivity. I have found in my years of experience as a recruiter, that the candidates I have been most successful in placing in “stressful” jobs, are the ones who best understand what the role is and what they need to do to be successful.

A person who loves people, talking to them and helping them, may check the box for customer service but may find it ‘too stressful’ to work in a help desk environment with strict timetables for service. That person may perform better in a situation where the focus isn’t on timing but resolution, making them a great fit for the second public facing role I discussed. On the other hand, a person who has all the technical expertise required for help desk, but doesn’t like working with people, wouldn’t be a fit for either job.

To be successful in creating an atmosphere where people with mental health disabilities feel welcomed, we need to avoid blanket statements that imply that mental health is the qualification as opposed to interests, skills, competencies, and experiences. We also need to take the time to learn about and understand stress and how we can manage it. This is why mental wellness programs that encourage a mental fitness routine is so important in today’s workforce and why I feel so blessed to continue the work we are engaging in with our iMindCafe product.

I look forward to continuing the discussion of why people with mental health disabilities don’t disclose in the coming weeks.