Judi Clements, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand says prior research has already exposed many of the problems employers mistakenly perceive are associated in employing people with experience of mental distress.
“This time, with What Works, we wanted to find out what happens when employment situations work well.”
The research was undertaken by Dr Sarah Gordon and Dr Debbie Peterson (both of whom have their own experiences of mental distress) and used a case study approach. In total 15 pairs of employees (who identified as mental health service users) and their employers were interviewed across a range of employment types: selfemployed, permanent (full or part-time) and contracted. Employees had varying levels of organisational responsibility within small and large private sector firms, government and non-government organisations, in both urban and rural environments.
Recent New Zealand figures, accessed during the research, showed that 23,545 people who receive a Jobseeker Support benefit do so as a result of experiencinga psychological or psychiatric condition. This figure represents 42 per cent of the total number of people who receive this benefit due to a health condition or disability.
Debbie believes the timing was right for this project because had they tried gathering the stories 10 years ago the perceived environment of stigma and discrimination at the time would have lead to far fewer employees and employers volunteering, and fewer people willing to share their real names. She said it was a privilege to talk to the people who volunteered their experiences for What Works and develop their individual stories into case studies that focused on the positives of employing people with experience of mental distress.
Sarah adds, “From Debbie and my perspectives, What Works is turning the tables on previous employment research by talking about the positive and successful experiences of mental health service users in employment rather than the negatives. It was a fabulous project with each case study contributing
significantly to our body of evidence.”
Addressing the challenges
In terms of challenges, Sarah says they were faced with several:
- The tight timeframe: six months from start to finish, which made for very intense research.
- Applying the criteria for exclusion and inclusion: “I found it very hard to say no to people, because I have a real regard for anyone who finds the strength to step forward and speak out. It was hard to turn around and exclude them based on the project’s specific inclusion and exclusion criteria,” Sarah says.
- The limitations of the research – in particular the lack of younger (under 23) older (over 65) and Māori participants.
Perceptions around accommodation and disclosure
One of the most intriguing findings for Debbie and Sarah was people’s differing perceptions around employment accommodations. “We found it hugely interesting that employees told us they were asking for and receiving specific accommodations in their employment,” Debbie says. “But when we asked their employers, they said they were providing no more than they would offer to other employees. It was a big thing in the minds of an employee but not the employer.”
They both had another revelation while working on the project. “For most employment situations, I’ve always leaned to the side of only disclosing any prior experience of mental distress if it became necessary, but now – for both personal and legal reasons – I think that people should disclose if it is possible right at the start,” Debbie says.
Sarah concurs, “I would now advise that people should disclose. This is primarily because, if an organisation is not going to be receptive and accommodating to a person’s disclosure, then its workplace is unlikely to be good for their mental wellbeing.“
“In terms of future research, Debbie and I think a more targeted look at the issues around disclosure would be interesting. A lot of things hinge around the pros and cons of disclosure and what it means for individuals.”
There were a number of other things that stood out for the researchers:
- Becoming aware of the significant number of people who are struggling with unemployment and mental distress, and as a result are unemployed. There are repercussions to that especially in a small economy such as New Zealand.
- Knowing there are many people employed across a lot of different industries and professions that are simply getting on with life and their work regardless ofn any experience of mental distress.
- Knowing there are very experienced employers out there employing people with mental distress because they don’t have any more or less issues than anyone else in the workplace.
- Seeing just how hard it can be to shift stigma and discrimination. If someone was employing one person with mental distress they couldn’t generalise the experience and recommend it. Employers who had more than one person were more likely to generalise – but still had some difficulty.
Judi says it is good to have such an under-explored field of research looked at. “We’re expecting to apply the outcomes of What Works in the Like Minds programme going forward,” she says. “For the next five years, one of the primary focuses of the Like Minds, Like Mine programme will be on fostering workplace policies, structures and cultures that are more inclusive and supportive of people with experience of mental distress.”Building a socially inclusive society
Sarah and Debbie hope a wide range of people will benefit from the finished research, such as people with experience of mental distress, employers, and people who are supporting service users such as mental health clinicians and supported employment specialists.
”It’s about making the leap beyond the perceptions about ourselves to the reality of the situation,” Debbie says.
“It’s not all negative and people will not necessarily be discriminated against if they seek work.”
The research shows that employment of people with experience of mental distress can be a win-win for all involved.
“Employees and employers each have an important part to play in making this situation a reality for many more people,” Debbie and Sarah say. “The positive focus of the research, in contrast to most of our other investigations into the experience of mental distress, has been refreshing, and is key in moving towards promoting wellbeing by supporting individuals to develop a positive identity and valued social roles and relationships.”
“The main message this research conveys is that if you are not willing to consider and accommodate the employment of those with experience of mental distress, then you are precluding a group of people who may not only bring expertise and experience specific to the role but who can also provide insights, based on their own experiences with mental distress and recovery, that can be of value to your workplace.”
Debbie and Sarah hope What Works will lead to more inclusive work places and a socially inclusive New Zealand.
Recommendations for employees and employers
Key recommendations for employees with experience of mental distress are:
- be aware – of the benefits of working; and of your value, obligations and rights as an employee
- be proactive – have a plan for achieving your employment goals
- be considered – have a planfor sharing your experience of mental distress
- be positive – maintain a positive attitude and work ethic
- be relationship-focused – keep the lines of communication open with your employer
- be persistent – find the right job fit
- be informed – keep up to date with resources to help you find and maintain work.
Key recommendations for employers are:
- be aware – that people with experience of mental distress can be highly valued employees; and of your obligations as an employer
- be reflective – on your attitudes towards people with experience of mental distress, and how you are directly or subtly creating barriers to their employment
- be relationship-focused – maintain an open door policy (they work well)
- be a good employer – exercise your rights and responsibilities with respect, integrity, and flexibility
- be informed – about how to best support people with experience of mental distress in employment.