Managing your mental health and disclosure at work
There's no right or wrong answer when it comes to telling people at work about your mental health condition. Whether you choose to tell others can depend on how much your condition affects your role, the amount of support you have outside the workplace and your relationships with your colleagues.
You are not legally required to tell your employer unless your condition has the potential to endanger your safety or that of your colleagues – for example, your ability to operate machinery or make decisions.
It may also be a good idea to discuss your condition with your employer if it's affecting the standard of your work, or if there are concerns about your performance. If this applies to you, you may need some adjustments to support you at work.
Weighing up the pros and cons
Reasons to tell
- Discussing your condition gives you and your employer an opportunity to talk about any support or changes you might need to help you stay at work and/or assist your recovery.
- Making adjustments to your schedule or workload can reduce the number of sick days you need and help you be more productive when you're at work.
- By sharing your experiences, you're helping to change people's attitudes.
- Being open with your colleagues can help to avoid rumours or gossip.
- If your performance or productivity has changed, telling your colleagues means they're more likely to be understanding.
- If you need to make a formal disability discrimination complaint at a later date, telling your employer helps to protect your rights.
Reasons not to tell
- Your depression and/or anxiety may not affect your ability to do your job.
- You might not need any adjustments to your workload or schedule at the moment.
- You might be worried about potential discrimination, harassment or reduced opportunities for career progression.
- For some people, the depression and/or anxiety may pass but the label and associated stigma can be permanent.
- Some employers fail to provide the legal level of support or follow legislative requirements.
- You might already have adequate support networks outside the workplace and feel there's not much to gain by talking about your condition.
Employee rights and responsibilities
What are your rights?
The right to protection from discrimination
If you have a mental health condition, certain laws protect you against discrimination in the workplace.
The Australia-wide Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) and equivalent state and territory laws make it unlawful to discriminate against, harass or victimise people with disabilities – including in an employment context.
The term 'disability' is broadly defined and includes mental health conditions:
- whether temporary or permanent
- whether past, present or future
- whether actual or just assumed.
- In a workplace setting, this discrimination could occur:
- during the recruitment processes, in advertising, interviewing and selecting candidates
- when determining terms and conditions of employment such as pay rates, work hours and leave
- in selecting or rejecting employees for promotion, transfer and training
- through dismissal, demotion or retrenchment.
Employers are obligated by law to provide a safe and healthy workplace
The Act defines 'discrimination' to include both direct and indirect discrimination. This means an employer's failure to make reasonable adjustments for a worker with a mental health condition may constitute discrimination, even when on the face of it no 'direct' discrimination has occurred. Visit Heads Up for an explanation of reasonable adjustments.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has developed a brief guide to the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth). Visit Australian Human Rights Commission for this guide.
The right to privacy
Your right to privacy is covered by the Australia-wide Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) and similar legislation in some states and territories.
If you tell your employer you have a mental health condition, they can't disclose this information to anyone without your consent. They can only use this information for the purpose for which you told them, such adjusting your role or working environment to make allowances for your mental health condition.
The right to a healthy, safe workplace
Workplace health and safety legislation requires employers to ensure that workplaces are both physically and mentally healthy for all employees. This means steps must be taken to ensure that the working environment does not harm mental well-being or aggravate an existing condition.
Under each state's work health and safety (WH&S) legislation, your employer is obligated, so far as is reasonably practicable, to provide a safe and healthy workplace. This means they must take action to prevent or lessen potential risks to the health and safety of you and your colleagues, including your mental well-being.
In practice, this gives you a right to working conditions that do not cause a mental health condition or aggravate any existing mental health condition.
Get an overview of existing and proposed WH&S laws at Safe Work Australia.
Find your local WH&S regulator:
- Australian Commonwealth
- New South Wales
- Australian Capital Territory
- South Australia
- Western Australia
- Northern Territory
What are your responsibilities?
If your mental health condition does not affect how you do your job, you have no legal obligation to tell your employer about it. This applies whether you are a current employee, or a potential employee going through the recruitment process.
WH&S laws protect your right to a safe workplace, but you also have responsibilities under the same legislation. You must take care of yourself and others and cooperate with your employer in matters of health and safety. This applies to all workers, whether they have a disability or not.
As well as this, under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) your ability to work safely is an 'inherent' or essential requirement of any job. If your disability could reasonably be seen to create a health and safety risk for other people at work, then your failure to tell anyone about that risk could be a breach of your obligations under WH&S legislation.
Visit Heads Up for more information about mental health in the workplace, and to access an interactive tool to help you decide if you should tell your employer about your mental illness.
Tips for Maintaining Mental Wellbeing at Work
- Be aware of, and avoid the things that trigger your illness.
- Monitor your stress levels.
- Take tea and lunch breaks, and if necessary go off site to reduce stress.
- Exercise during your lunch break.
- Maintain your medication routine. Employers may be able to provide a private place to store or take your medication.
- Maintain a routine when you feel unwell.
- Develop a healthy way to release anger, such as an off-site walk, meeting with or phoning a friend during your breaks.
- Learn and use relaxation techniques.
- Use your networks of family or friends, caseworker or community links.
- Maintain behaviour appropriate to the situation.
- If you are unwell or unhappy about something, speak to a trusted person in confidence.