Opinion

Why hiring an employee with a mental illness can actually benefit employers

I know how challenging it can be for those with mental illness to find jobs. Because of that, I am that much more committed to my work when I am afforded an opportunity.

I know how hard it can be to find work. So when I am afforded an opportunity, I am exceptionally committed

In Canada, anywhere from 70 to 90 per cent of people with severe mental illnesses find themselves unemployed. (Shutterstock)

It's a gamble every time I decide to be open about my mental health: will I hear the typical "this might not work out" that I always fear will lead to my dismissal? Or will my employer actually accept it and try to work with me to find solutions?

I have a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder and depression, which can obviously pose some challenges in a working environment. I have held positions in customer service call centres and retail sales. Each of these positions come with their own sets of challenges requiring some level of accommodation, usually with scheduling around weekly doctor appointments and a designated spot for prolonged panic attacks.  

But unless I am told by a doctor that I need medical leave, I don't need to be off work or without a job — especially since my doctors and I recognize that the act of working is therapeutic and empowering.   

Employer reservations

I know many employers have reservations about hiring someone with a mental illness. They fear late starts, prolonged absences, erratic behaviour and so forth. And these fears are perceptible to employees, which explains why, according to the Centre For Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), 39 per cent of Ontario workers would not tell their managers if they were experiencing a mental health problem or crisis.

But there is a case to be made that hiring people with mental illness could actually be to the benefit of the employer. For me at least, my struggle with depression means I can be extraordinarily creative in coming up with solutions to problems. I am also compassionate with customers and co-workers alike who might be having bad days. I often use a broad understanding of my own struggle to empathize during tense situations, and I draw on a variety of skills learned through therapy to remain relatively calm while working through problems.

And because I know how challenging it can be for those with mental illness to find jobs, I am that much more committed to my work when I am afforded an opportunity. In Canada, anywhere from 70 to 90 per cent of people with severe mental illnesses find themselves unemployed, meaning that the minority who do find work probably consider themselves very fortunate. Indeed, these people may become the most loyal and hardworking employees an employer can welcome to their team.

That said, the above doesn't always apply if the issue of mental health is never really acknowledged or discussed in the workplace. Indeed, in my experience, not having an open conversation about mental illness can actually make things worse, and in some cases, just the thought of being let go under circumstances relating to my symptoms can lead to panic attacks and other undesirable effects. 

In contrast, managers who have offered help and understanding to effectively manage my symptoms saw major successes in my performance as an employee. Granted, I have been in situations where employers dismissed my concerns or made me feel scared when my "secret" became known, and while I did still stay with those jobs, it was a challenge. It's to everyone's benefit to discuss these issues openly and constructively, and to resist the urge to shy away from challenges. Those willing and able to work while living with mental illness certainly do not avoid these struggles.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Sarnia-born Emily Plunkett is a freelance writer and photographer based in Gatineau.

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