The way we think about work is broken

I’d like to introduce you to Joe. Joe recently started a new job with a successful construction firm with great promotion prospects. He’s excited about this new career opportunity. After a week on the job, Joe broke his leg while playing in a weekend hockey match. He needed an operation to insert screws into the broken bones and a couple of weeks off work for recovery after surgery. He returned to work in a ‘moon-boot’, which had to be worn for several weeks.

Joe’s mates at work laughed about his injury and found humour in the situation. They welcomed him back to work as a new team member, laughing that he only lasted one week before the workplace had broken him. Joe’s future is looking bright and hockey training will be resumed in the next few weeks. 

It’ not an uncommon story and one most people would happily accept in the workplace. After all, we can’t foresee the things that are out of our control. 

When I speak with senior managers, supervisors and employees, I hear certain misconceptions around rights and responsibilities regarding mental health in the workplace. How would Joe’s broken leg fare if the same thinking was applied to physical illness or injury… 

“..Employees should have to disclose if they have a mental illness at the recruitment stage of employment so our organisation isn’t responsible if an episode of mental illness happens while they are employed with us..” 

If we apply this thinking to Joe’s injury, it would mean Joe should have disclosed that he played hockey on weekends and advised the workplace of any prior physical injuries which have occurred and any injuries which may occur in the future due to playing any sport. This would be an impossible task and doesn’t make sense. 

An employee may never have experienced a mental health condition prior to being in your workplace. We can never tell who will experience a mental illness or when. 

“.. We take our professional selves to work. Leave the rest at home..” 

Absolutely! We can all expect certain behaviours and codes of conduct in our workplaces which employees agree to abide by at the time of accepting employment. 

However, life’s events, such as a death in the family, a sick child, a house to purchase or a relationship break-up have a way of impacting on us, creating stress or worse, and we may need some time out. As Joe did. 

“.. We have a safe workplace without bullying or long work hours. There’s no mental illness here…” 

With 45 percent of Australians experiencing a mental illness some time in their working years, we are all most likely going to be confronted by someone with a mental illness or experience mental illness ourselves, at some stage. Perhaps there are people in your workplace who have been diagnosed with a mental illness and they have not disclosed this to anyone at work. Unfortunately it’s very common for employees not to disclosing this information at work. While Joe’s injury was visible, other conditions can be masked, often because a person fears they may lose their job. 

“..Workplaces don’t cause mental illness in most cases, so they shouldn’t have to deal with it…” 

Joe’s workplace didn’t cause the broken leg, so the workplace shouldn’t have to deal with it. And yet we do. And we do for many sensible reasons. Joe was the best person for the job, and still is. His broken leg may have healed and may never cause trouble again. Or he may need ongoing support through physiotherapy and certain activities may cause the injury to flare up. If the injury flares up, we continue to offer support by varying workplace duties or allowing time-off to attend medical appointments. 

Sometimes people have a once-off occurrence of a mental illness. Others live with mental illness throughout their lives. Sometimes, mental illness comes and goes and people have flare ups from time to time. We need to accommodate mental illness, just as we do Joe’s physical illness. 

As we increase our understanding of mental illness, our attitudes towards people experiencing mental health concerns at work will change, which will foster healthier and happier workplaces for us all. 

For more information about Aspect Group call (03) 9682 5933.