I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%

Madalyn Parker

So wrote Madalyn Parker, a web developer in America, in a work email to colleagues in June. Her email, and her boss’s positive response hailing her a great example in challenging stigma, has since gone viral. Stories like this are important because they highlight the need to look after our mental health with regard to work, just as we would our physical health.

Unfortunately, stigma about mental health needs in the workplace remains a problem. A 2016 survey completed by St. Patrick’s Mental Health Services found that of 503 participants – “48% reported that they would not feel comfortable explaining to their boss that they needed time off work due to a mental health difficulty”. Thankfully however there are lots of resources and information available to both employees and employers to support and promote change in how we deal with mental health needs at work. A good example of this is the SeeChange initiative which has identified work as a ‘key setting’ for promoting positive social change in attitudes to mental health difficulties. You can learn more about See Change in your workplace here.

Increased awareness and understanding of mental health needs will help chip away at stigma in the workplace. In the meantime, while we wait for emails like Madalyn’s to become the norm rather than the exception, it’s important to be aware of our rights in the workplace.

How are you protected from discrimination in the workplace?

Your rights in relation to health and disability needs in the workplace are primarily protected in law by the Equality Acts. The Equality Acts protect people from discrimination at work, or when applying for work, on nine grounds. One of these grounds is ‘disability’ and includes mental health difficulties. If you believe you have been discriminated against because of mental health difficulties you can make a complaint to the Workplace Relations Commission.

The Equality Acts also requires employers to take reasonable appropriate measures to meet the needs of employees who have a disability. Examples of appropriate measures are adapting a person’s work environment, allowing rest periods or changing a person’s working hours. Employers do not have to offer measures like this if it would cause a ‘disproportionate burden’ on them. An example of this could be where the financial cost would not be affordable to the company. Many helpful measures which may be relevant to mental health needs do not involve excessive costs however. These might include for example, flexible working hours or extra peer support or training.

What about disclosing mental health difficulties at work?

Sharing your mental health difficulties with your employer is a choice, as it would be with physical health difficulties. For some people, privacy about their health needs is very important. For others talking about your mental health needs may be important to identifying supports and accessing ‘appropriate measures’ to help you do your job, as was explained above. It may also be necessary to speak with your employer if there are certain parts of your job you can no longer do safely – for example, if you are taking medication that impairs your ability to operate heavy machinery. It can be important to think about what you may want to say, to whom, and when and where you will discuss it.
You can find helpful tips about disclosure on the SeeChange website.

Where can you find more information?

For employees

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC), formerly the Equality Authority, provides lots of useful information on their website about how your rights are protected under equality law. You can find out information about mental health and employment here. You can also call or email IHREC if you have queries about work-related discrimination and or equality law.

Their contact details are:
Telephone – (01) 858 3000 or Lo-call 1890 245545
E-mail: YourRights@ihrec.ie
For general information about sick leave and sick pay you can find information from the Citizen’s Information service.

You can access information about the Workplace Relations Commission here, or you can contact them by phone at lo-call 1890 80 80 90.

For employers

If you are an employer and would like information about equality law and employment you can download this useful booklet from The Equality Authority: “Equality and mental health: what the law means for your workplace“.

Ibec have produced a guide for line managers on mental health and wellbeing.
The Employer Disability Information service provides information on recruiting, and retaining staff with disabilities. You can phone them at (01) 676 2014.

You can learn more about the SeeChange workplace initiative here.

If you are concerned about any issues in this blog you can contact St Patricks Mental Health Services at our dedicated information and support line (01) 2493 333 to talk free of charge to a qualified mental health professional.

Louise O’Leary, Senior Occupational Therapist

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