New Zealand law says people experiencing mental health issues must advise their boss when their symptoms would “pose a risk” to themselves or other people in their workplace, or where their symptoms mean they can’t perform their job. Given what we do in the military – operating with heavily vehicles, weapons, strenuous physical activity, operating electrical equipment and tools, military exercises etc – any issue that reduces your ability to concentrate, or means you are more distracted than you should be, or you are on medication that could impact on your performance or decision making ability, could be covered under this heading. After all, who wants to be responsible for causing an injury to one of your mates?
What happens if I ask for help?
One of the main reasons for not asking for help is fear of discrimination – that you could be treated differently, and that it could impact on promotion, training or other progression opportunities for you. On the flip-side, telling your boss can mean things can be put in place to support you, and any associated drop in performance can be attributed to your illness rather than you simply not doing your job.
Disclosure - do I need to tell my boss?
Under New Zealand law, it's illegal for a potential employer to ask any questions of a job applicant that could “reasonably be understood as indicating” that the employer had an intention to commit discrimination (Human Rights Act, 1993: s. 23). But what does that mean if something happens in my current job?
Benefits of asking for help and/or telling my boss
- Possible changes to work tasks and/or work arrangements can be made.
- The understanding of symptoms by you and your boss can be developed and improved.
- You can access support services (although you don’t need to tell your boss in order to use the Padre, Psych or medical facilities within the military).
The issue of disclosure is apparently a double-bind situation: people with experience of mental illness will not disclose due to fear of discrimination, but if they don’t disclose, reasonable accommodations cannot be made. Overall, research indicates that the benefits of disclosure outweigh non-disclosure. The challenge for employers is to create a non-discriminatory workplace environment and culture where it's safe to disclose, and people with experience of mental illness are not at risk of discrimination.
Confidentiality - what does this mean for me?
Issues of privacy and confidentiality apply and doctors will not generally disclose patient information to employers or HR. The person is the expert on their experience as they are living it - talk to them. If it is possible to have open discussions with them and their doctor or other support people about how best to support them, that is ideal.
Medical-In-Confidence...What does this mean?
In New Zealand the collection and use of personal information is protected by law, this includes the Medical-In-Confidence information the NZDF holds. All medical staff must comply with the Privacy Act of 1993 or the Health Information Privacy Code 1994 and could be investigated the health directorate and/or the Medical Council if they breach those rules.
Doctors also have an ethical responsibility to keep health information confidential and to "protect the patient's private information throughout his or her lifetime and following death unless there are overriding considerations in terms of public interest or patient safety" (NZ Medical Association’s Code of Ethics, Principle Five). This means that medical records will remain private unless a doctor (or psych etc) believes that there is a real risk that a patient could harm themselves or others. If they believe there is a real risk, they are able to break the confidentiality rules and pass information on.
Commanders or managers can expect to know the following regarding an injury or illness, whether it is a physical or mental health issue:
- the injury/illness diagnosis
- the length of time someone’s work will be affected
- the level of incapacity for work, and
- any restrictions a subordinate is under (Light Duties chits).
Medical personnel also have a professional responsibility to advise commanders of any health problems which could impact on an individual’s employability, personal safety, the safety of others or the efficient functioning of the individual’s unit.
If a medical condition (physical, mental or psychological) could have welfare, morale, discipline or security implications, your Commanding Officer will be informed in general terms of the nature of the medical condition by the medical officer, but always with the knowledge, and if possible consent, of the service person.
Reasons for and against telling my boss or workmates
There are generally three reasons people experiencing mental illness disclose it:
- Legal – where the law places obligations on people to disclose
- Ethical – where people experiencing mental illness feel that disclosure is the right thing to do
- Practical – where people must disclose in order to access services and resources.
The most basic sort of pressure is if someone starts experiencing symptoms in the workplace; in these situations, they often have no choice except to tell. If the symptoms are hidden, or not seen at work, should I tell?
Legal pressures to disclose
Ethical pressures to disclose
This revolves around issues of honesty, personal integrity, and the integrity of work relationships – not dissimilar to our military ethos. Trying to 'hide' your mental health issues can create more stress and pressure for you than being upfront about it, and can lead to a loss of self-respect and make your symptoms worse.
Practical pressures to disclose
This includes the need to ask for changes to your usual work routine, such as time off for counselling or other appointments, a change in task, not being able to attend a planned unit activity/exercise etc. Your boss can’t approve these sorts of things unless they know what is going on for you. You can’t expect to have allowances made for you if you don’t explain why you need them – you can’t have it both ways.
Also, some people have smaller social support networks than others. Support systems can sometimes be more easily accessible if the issues are disclosed – your boss can sometimes make things happen faster than you can on your own. Disclosure can also help some people feel they are accepted and that they belong in their workplace.
Benefits of disclosure
In summary, disclosure generally helps people experiencing mental health issues:
- organise changes at work to accommodate the issues (eg: time off for counselling)
- increases the chance that they will gain understanding from their bosses, and increases the opportunities for respect and support from workmates (eg: he/she isn’t just slacking off because they are lazy)
- facilitate your and your bosses understanding of your illness and symptoms
- enables access to welfare systems (your boss can sometimes make things happen faster)
- to stop worrying about finding excuses to go to the doctor etc, or about finding ways to explain the side effects of medication
- strengthen workplace relationships and build trust
- to ensure they are not assessed as having poor work performance rather than experiencing symptoms of mental illness; this can have adverse consequences for their employment records.
Disclosure can give people experiencing mental illness a sense of freedom (I don’t have to hide it any more), and empower other people suffering to talk about it. It is also easier to educate others about mental illness once someone has disclosed.
Reasons not to disclose
The main reason someone won’t disclose mental illness is the risk of potential discrimination at work.
Do I tell my boss?
Some worries people have about telling their boss are that:
- they would be more closely supervised than before
- they would be isolated from others
- they would be fired
- they would not be hired in the first place
- they would not be promoted
- they would need to work harder than co-workers simply to prove their competence
- information about their mental health issue would be passed on to others, and
- they would forever be labelled according to their mental health issue.
Disclosure makes is easier to be flexible with work arrangements, and allows for better communication and relationships with bosses/commanders.
Do I tell my mates?
It is common not to want your co-workers or mates to know if you are suffering mental health issues, or to want only a select few to know.
Consequences of disclosing to colleagues
Even if you feel supported by co-workers/mates, it is usual to still feeling awkward about it sometimes.
Sometimes people will react in a negative way to issues of mental health, but remember, people often react badly to things they don’t understand. Give them, and yourself, time.
When do I tell someone?
For most people experiencing mental health issues, deciding the best time to tell someone is influenced by a number of factors:
- Has something happened that means I can no longer hide what is going on?
- Should I "get in first" before I get in trouble because my work performance is dropping?
- Do I need more help as this is now bigger than me?
Remember, your boss or mates can’t help you if they don’t know what is going on!
How do I tell someone?
There is no one right way to do this. Everyone is different, and everyone’s situation will also be unique to them. Here are a few things to think about that may help:
- Make a plan – where, when, who, and what you are going to say
- Perhaps first tell someone at work you are close to and can trust, and gradually work up to telling your boss as your confidence grows.
- Have someone go with you when you talk to your boss – a friend, co-worker, family member etc.
- Think about some things that your boss could help with to assist you working through your situation – try to have some possible solutions and options, not just problems.
- Be honest, positive and specific.
Don't give up
If you have made the decision to approach someone to ask for help with what you are going through, and that person (doctor, boss, friend, padre, family member etc) doesn’t understand, isn’t able to or can’t help, talk to someone else. Keep on asking until you find someone who can help you.