Communicating with colleagues

Adele*, aged 42, NSW

My employer has it on record that I have an illness but I do not publicly announce my problems. Returning to work after an episode including five weeks of hospitalisation was not easy. On a personal level I shook with fear at my desk as I no longer had confidence in myself. I had made myself do all the normal things- get up, shower and dress and get to work- however my thoughts were dominated by uncertainty in myself. My close friends advised having more time off but I knew that was not an option. To gain confidence again I just had to do it.

Sonia*, aged 31, Victoria

"Work was my saving grace after recovering from my second bout of depression and anxiety.

What to tell colleagues

" Workmates need some information if they are to welcome you back without worrying they'll say the wrong thing.

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Colleagues' reactions are often an area of great concern for people returning to work after mental illness. Many people describe experiences of stigma and discrimination while others report that support from colleagues played a role in recovery. Experiences of stigma usually happen because of ignorance and fear, rather than ill will. Deciding whether or not to disclose a mental health problem at work is one of the most difficult issues an employee can face.

The way in which information about an employee's absence and return to work should be communicated will vary. Some people are more open than others and some workplaces are more accepting of those with mental health problems.

Key issues

  • Worrying about what people think can act as a barrier to return to work.
  • Supervisors need to manage issues related to team morale and concerns about workload. This may be particularly difficult if there are interpersonal issues complicating a person's absence.
  • An employee's privacy needs to be respected.
  • Colleagues might not be sure what to say and find it easier to avoid the employee or not mention mental health.

DOs and DON'Ts

Supervisors

Do

  • be guided by the employee's wishes. Ask "How much do you want to disclose?"
  • discuss and come to a clear agreement with the employee about who is to be told and what they will be told
  • if the person does not want any information to be given, you may just want to say that the person is having time off for personal issues
  • some colleagues might want to send flowers, cards or even visit the person. If this is the case, ask the employee what they would prefer and pass on their wishes to colleagues.
  • try to deal with mental health problems in an honest, matter-of-fact way. As much as possible, try and treat a mental health problem in the same way you would treat a physical health problem.
  • watch out for hostile reactions - stamp out any hurtful gossip or bullying promptly
  • check in with the employee about how they are getting on with colleagues as part of the process of reviewing the return-to-work plan

Don't

  • put pressure on an employee to disclose more than they feel comfortable with
  • shroud the issue in secrecy
  • allow the person's absence or mental health problems to become a source of office gossip

Employees

Do

  • discuss and come to a clear agreement with your supervisor about who is to be told and what they will be told

Colleagues

Do

  • welcome the employee back after sick leave. A simple "It's good to see you back" can be very helpful
  • be respectful of the employee's confidential mental health history

Don't

  • avoid talking with the person for fear of saying the wrong thing. It's ok to ask "How are you going?"
  • pry for details about their problems

Useful links

How can I explain my mental health problem to co-workers?

UK MIND's resources for creating mentally healthy workplaces.