Mentally ill face workplace stigma

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Executives with mental health problems are being forced to suffer in silence at work amid increasing intolerance towards their condition, research from Britain’s leading disability campaign group has found.

In what it claims is the first UK study of high-earning disabled workers, Radar found that people with a history of medical problems such as bipolar disorder or clinical depression were four times as likely to keep their illness secret than counterparts with other disabilities.

The study shows mental illness still carries a stigma that means very few “high fliers” are willing to admit to it publicly.

It comes two years after Lord Stevenson, the former chairman of Pearson, owner of the Financial Times, and HBOS, disclosed his own regular battles with depression and called on companies to raise awareness and create a “culture of humanity” where managers were not afraid to show emotions.

Liz Sayce, chief executive of Radar, said: “There is a common pattern that people’s comfort level is higher with colleagues in a wheelchair or with diabetes; they are slightly less comfortable with people with sensory disabilities and they are far less comfortable with mental illness. What we need is a complete change in culture.”

Research last year on behalf of the Department of Health showed attitudes towards people with mental illness had worsened over the past 15 years by some measures, with people not wanting someone with a history of depression or schizophrenia as a boss or neighbour.

The Radar study – of people with disabilities earning more than £40,000 ($65,483) a year – showed 15 per cent of those with mental health problems did not disclose them to anybody at work, compared with just 4 per cent for other disabled people. While part of the difference can be explained by the visible nature of conditions such as blindness or paraplegia, people with learning difficulties and other such non-visible conditions were also far less secretive.

Only one in five people with mental health problems told their employer’s human resources department and about a third told their immediate line manager.

Ms Sayce said it was up to senior managers to implement a culture acknowledging that many members of staff would suffer mental health problems at some point, while line managers needed to be given better guidance.

Mind, the mental health charity, says as many as three in 10 employees suffer from anxiety and depressive disorders in any year.

The government is considering an amendment to the equality bill – being steered through parliament by Harriet Harman, Labour’s deputy leader – which would bar employers from asking about health issues during the interview process.

In other findings from its survey, Radar showed that almost one in five of its sample group was earning more than £80,000 a year, although people with mental health problems were far less likely to join that tier of top earners.

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