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Is it ever right to hide mental health problems from the boss?

07 August 2015

Is it ever right to hide mental health problems from the boss?


Comedian Ruby Wax has become a leading voice on mental health issues in the UK. She’s now a high-profile campaigner who’s just been offered a new post as visiting professor for mental health nursing at the University of Surrey. So when she advises employees to never tell their boss about a mental health problem, people are going to sit up and listen.

“When people say ‘Should you tell them at work?’ I say ‘Are you crazy?’”, Ruby said to The Times newspaper last month. “You have to lie. If you have someone who is physically ill, they can’t fire you. They can’t fire you for mental health problems but they’ll say it’s for another reason. Just say you have emphysema.”

At Validium, we say that if employees do hide mental health issues from their line managers, no-one makes any progress. We need more openness and more understanding to be able to work on problems - it’s the only way the stigma will be tackled over time. We know that at least 1 in 4 of us will experience mental ill health at some point in our life (and 1 in 10 of us will be likely to self-harm in some way), so if all these employees are keeping silent about their concerns and their health, as Ruby Wax advises, that’s a lot of silence, secrecy and isolation in the workplace.

Ruby Wax is, however, making a serious point about the private attitudes and prejudices of managers and how these can sometimes differ from diversity and equality policies within organisations. 

And here’s the crux of the issue. Prejudice and negative ‘judging’ from a manager tends to happen when an employee presents with high levels of emotions within the workplace, which detrimentally affects their performance and contribution. If the employee expects the manager to be able to “mind read”, to have all the answers to their problems or to act as a life coach, the manager, quite understandably, may get frustrated and anxious themselves. The manager may then find excuses for the employee to change roles or move out of the department, as it’s just too difficult to manage the situation. 

Taking charge

There is a way forward, however. The key message for any employee worried about their mental health is to take control and to ensure they are fully prepared with ‘solutions’ before talking to their line manager. The employee needs to get advice, plans and confidence about how to manage their work situation from a recognised mental health professional. A GP is good, but a more specific professional is better, an EAP advisor or someone from a support organisation like MIND or Rethink. It’s vital that the employee understands their own diagnosis and prognosis for their condition, and the impact these will have on their behaviour and performance at work. The employees need to articulate the triggers for episodes of anxiety or depression, for example. They need to develop their own support network - including family, friends, local support groups and professionals. The employee also needs to think carefully about whether and how their mental health issue is, in practice, going to affect their day-to-day ability to do their job. There are plenty of physical ailments that don’t affect people’s work and it’s the same with mental health. You might have an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which means you have to get up at 6am each morning to clean the house, but this condition is unlikely to affect performance at work, if it’s managed and contained. Many professionals can perform extremely well because of their obsessive disorders, not in spite of them. There’s a fine line between those mental health conditions that make everyday working impossible and those that contribute to performance and dedication at work.

Education, information, legislation, rights and responsibilities about mental health within the workplace are all essential learnings for managers and employees. It can be useful as a first step for employees to go to the HR department, before talking to a line manager, and ask for a confidential conversation to test out the organisational policy and what can and can’t be expected in terms of support.  If the response from the HR manager is negative and results in changes to a role without consultation, limiting duties or even reducing payment, then the employee needs to know the legislation and the rules on discrimination, and be assertive enough to challenge these, with HR and their manager.

All these areas are important for establishing up a clear picture of the situation and how to move forward. This is what managers want to see – that the employee is aware of what’s happening and taking responsibility for positive next steps. The nature of mental illness usually means that problems don’t happen overnight, there are warning signs, often giving the employee and the manager time to talk through options and get support before problems have the potential to get worse.

An employee being able to go to a line manager openly, setting out concerns about a mental health problem discussed with a professional, and then talking through what they’re going to do about it, makes a huge difference to the nature of the conversation. It’s entirely to the credit of the employee that they’re honest and demonstrate resilience in terms of identifying and dealing with adversity in a responsible, capable way. 

Duties of care

On their side, faced with this kind of open admission, employers have legal and moral duties of care to respond in the right way: to be similarly straightforward, open about their issues and reasonable in terms of suggested ways forward.

For the long-term, there needs to be a virtuous circle for people with mental health problems in the workplace. No more hiding away. The more people are open with managers, work through the issues and achieve a positive outcome, the more quickly the stigma and fear of psychological illness will wither away. And instead we’ll have a situation closer to that of physical illness, where problems are identified and dealt with. Many more employees will be able to get back to work and keep contributing and benefiting from all the different rewards and positive influences that work has on people’s lives.