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Depression – Why it pays to be fair in the workplace

Ksenia Zheltoukova

18 January 2012

On Blue Monday (16 January) The Work Foundation discussed the dread workers face on the most depressing day of the year. It was an interesting debate in which Mind’s Emma Mamo called for the cultural silence around mental health in the workplace to change. Then on Tuesday the twitter community went into a frenzy upon hearing that @badlydrawnroy, an employee of a small company, had been fired over performance issues after disclosing to his boss that he had depression.  

Surely, we have long known that the loss of productivity due to mental health-related conditions is vast. Sickness absence resulting from stress, depression, or anxiety caused more than 11 million lost working days in 2010 and cost UK businesses billions of pounds.
No wonder then that individuals are reluctant to open up to their employers if they have been diagnosed with a mental health condition. This is a real issue for employees. A survey conducted by The Work Foundation, entitled Why do employees come to work when ill?, revealed that over 40 per cent of employees felt pressure from managers and peers to come to work when unwell. 

It is because of the stigma associated with poor mental wellbeing that many people choose not to disclose their mental health difficulties to their employers, and so continue to work when they are ill. As @badlydrawnroy remarked on twitter, ‘being paid to sit at my desk staring listlessly at a screen trying not to have a complete breakdown.’  Coming to work when ill is counter-productive. Sickness presence is in fact estimated to cost employers up to 1.5 times more than sickness absence.

Naturally, it is frustrating for an employer to find out that their organisational performance is being compromised by an employee's  ‘personal issues’. However, being dismissive about employees whose performance is affected by their poor mental state - be that diagnosed depression, or an anxiety over their financial problems - must not become the first response of the employer. It is often work, especially if it is good work, that aids the improvement of an individuals’ wellbeing and recovery.

Many employers may think they do not have an important part to play. They may even mistakenly assume that hiring and training a new employee is cheaper than helping an existing employee to retain their job. In the case of @badlydrawnroy there is no evidence that his employer offered him any sort of support to help him address his productivity issues or recognise the impact that depression was having on his performance.
There is no excuse for the unfair treatment of employees with mental health difficulties. In fact, when such behaviour is exposed it can be bad for business. Modern employers should be aware that 52 per cent of consumers have reported that they never return to the product once it has been associated with unethical practice. Likewise, prospective applicants are placing employers under more scrutiny for their ethical treatment of employees.  Employers cannot afford to put talented people off.
There is now an abundance of free resources and advice that even small companies could and should consult to retain talent within organisations. To disclose or not to disclose – it is an individual judgement call. However, the organisational climate and practices must be such that they support the needs of an individual employee – which will drive productivity. Nice guys do win in the end.

Comments in Chronological Order (Total 2 Comments)

Filip Matous

18 Jan 2012 3:52PM

The Telegraph posted the story today. It is curious to me that you omitted the part where he was hunting for a job over a week ago on Monster and his multiple tweets stating how much he dislikes his job. Depression or not he was on the job 3 months as a salesman and was not making any sales. Do you think a small business has the luxury to function as a charity for peoples personal problems? More importantly, don't you think a small business needs salesmen that produce sales? That way they can pay taxes as a company that help pay for disabilities and mental problems.

Link to the Telegraph article:

Ksenia Zheltoukhova

19 Jan 2012 2:45PM


Thank you for your comment – it is true that many small businesses are struggling to meet the bottom line, and they do not necessarily have the capacity for ‘passengers’, as the employer from this case allegedly stated. If a salesman is not making any profit for the three months, the profit of a small business is affected significantly.

However, the complexity here is in the nature of the health issue that an employee was having. The lack of awareness of the resources available to retain people with mental health problems at the workplace, has lead to some organisations acquiring a dismissive approach to employees with mental health conditions.

Imagine, an employee was to disclose a diagnosis of cancer, or a heart problem, that would require them to reduce working hours for an indefinite period of time. Would the employer behave in the same way then? As long as the stigma around mental health conditions is present in the society in general, only ‘physical’ disease will receive due attention from the employers.