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Mental health is still a taboo topic in many firms, but disclosing a diagnosis can facilitate access to support and understanding from employers.

Mental health conditions are common, with around 20 per cent of Australians affected every year, yet broaching the topic is still taboo in many law firms – even though there’s far less stigma now than before the pandemic.

You are not required to share details of a mental health condition with your employer unless your condition affects your ability to do your job safely; but for some people, talking openly can help to improve mental health. And it can reduce the stigma-type attitudes and fear that come from people who don’t understand mental illness.

Here’s how to decide whether to talk to your workplace about a mental health diagnosis, and how to manage the conversation.

Analysing the pros and cons

The first step is to figure out whether you’re comfortable talking to your workplace about your mental health condition. It’s a big decision, especially for lawyers, explains executive coach Rachel Setti, director of Thriving Edge Coaching and Consulting.

“The biggest concern is often that it’s going to be a career-limiting move,” she says. “In law it might be something that people are even more concerned about than in other professions.”

Likewise, Jessica Kaaden, people and communications director at SANE, which supports people with complex mental health issues, says many workers decide not to share their diagnosis “out of fear that their manager or colleagues won’t be supportive”.

To figure out if this is likely to be the case, she recommends examining general attitudes and identifying any support mechanisms that may be in place at your workplace. “Does the employer have a mental health strategy in place? Does the employer participate in mental health awareness days? Has your manager expressed any views on mental health?”

Ultimately, the decision to disclose or not to disclose is personal, and highly dependent on your employer, says Kaaden. “There are some law firms who will do an absolutely fantastic job of addressing mental health as a significant issue and taking steps to break down the stigma and make support available to employees. But there are other law firms that aren’t as progressed in that journey.

“Each person should weigh the pros and cons of disclosing to their workplace based on their own situation.”

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Ultimately, the decision to disclose or not to disclose is personal, and highly dependent on your employer

Recruiting extra support

If you decide to initiate a conversation about your mental health with your manager, it can be helpful to enlist the support of the firm’s mental health first aid officer, head of people and culture or someone else with mental health training or awareness.

“This helps to facilitate an easier and more constructive conversation,” says Mary Digiglio, a managing partner at Sydney law firm Swaab and also a board member of the Minds Count Foundation, which promotes psychological health and safety in the legal community.

“That’s not to say that the manager won’t have these skills or awareness, but it’s an effective way to make sure the conversation is being held with the best amount of support possible.”

If your mental health issue is being exacerbated by your manager or working environment, there’s extra impetus to recruit support, Digiglio says. “If it’s a broader issue around, for example, the firm’s culture, the mental health first aid officer can walk away with some action items after talking with you. It’s not just up to the person who has the mental health issue and their direct manager [to find a solution].”

Setting a goal

Having clear motivation for your disclosure and a goal for the meeting can help to frame the conversation. “Be quite clear about what it is you need from the firm – it’s okay to have specific requirements,” Setti says. “Perhaps you need Thursday afternoons off for appointments with your psychologist. It can make their job supporting you easier if [what you need] is more tangible.”

Kaaden agrees that a focused conversation can help you access support and adjustments “that you may need to either be able to stay at work or to support your recovery”. These might include flexible working arrangements during challenging periods, late starts if medication causes drowsiness, and understanding that your performance may be impacted during acute episodes.

“Fear around having to hide a mental health condition can really exacerbate the condition itself,” she says. “Being able to be open can really improve what people can do at work.”

Before the meeting, give your manager a heads-up that you plan to discuss a mental health issue, and consider who else at the firm you’re comfortable with knowing about your diagnosis. Setti says allowing your diagnosis to be shared beyond your manager and even the mental health first aid officer can better facilitate access to support.

“A lot of managers feel like they’re out of their depth because they’re not mental health practitioners,” Setti says. “If you can say to your manager that you’re happy for HR to get involved, it makes everyone’s life a lot easier because HR has more tools, techniques and information to help you and your manager.”

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