Blog Post

Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace

By Deborah Tsai Munster
June 18, 2018

Working Mother Research Institute’s 2016 survey on disabilities in the workplace found a 20 percentage point difference between people with visible and non-apparent disabilities when it came to informing a hiring manager about the candidate’s disability prior to an interview

Once hired, employees with a non-apparent disability are more reluctant to disclose it than those with a visible disability.

One-third of respondents with a non-apparent disability choose not to tell their employer.
Of those who do not disclose, nearly half (43 percent) say they keep their disability a secret because they want to hide it and/or do not feel comfortable bringing it up to their employer.

Large segments of people with cognitive impairments (41 percent) and mental illness (37 percent), areas where there are too often significant stigmas, also choose not to disclose. WMRI’s 2016 survey found a 20 percentage point difference between people with visible and non-apparent disabilities when it came to informing a hiring manager about the candidate’s disability prior to an interview.


Kate Spade…Anthony Bourdain…countless others…including high profile executives, friends, family and loved ones.

Like all of you, it breaks our hearts. We all know of Senator John McCain’s brain cancer. We all know of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’, Christina Applegate’s and Wanda Sykes’ battle with breast cancer. We all know of Michael J Fox’s Parkinson’s. But when we heard about the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain we were shocked, we were caught off-guard. Their all too real and all too deep struggles were not shared.

Depression is a non-apparent disability. One we don’t know enough about and one that we certainly don’t talk about. Like other non-apparent disabilities (cognitive and mental), depression is stigmatized. Because of the stigma, we don’t talk openly about them. And when non-apparent disabilities are uncovered, it leaves us asking ourselves: Should we have known earlier? Could we have done something? How can we do more to help?

The fact is, as employers and D&I champions, we do address disability in the workplace. However, if we are to be honest with ourselves, we typically address visible disabilities. We can and should do better to address the non-apparent disabilities; to open the communication channels, create safe spaces and eliminate the stigmas. We have colleagues among us that are managing their non-apparent disabilities on a daily basis, many “in hiding.” Keeping a disability hidden is similar in concept to “covering” in the workplace– not being able to be your whole self at work; abandoning your personal identity in order to “fit in”, be accepted or succeed. In some cases we cover to avoid being branded or stigmatized. Research proves that when individuals have to cover- hide a part of who they are – productivity suffers, confidence and self-esteem wane, and ultimately the bottom line suffers.

Working Mother Research Institute’s 2016 study on all people with disabilities revealed that employees with non-apparent disabilities had a significantly different work experience and were less satisfied with their jobs than people with apparent disabilities. To examine this further, Working Mother Research Institute (WMRI) just released the “Uncovering Hidden Potential: Non-Apparent Disabilities in the Workplace” report. WMRI conducted research on non-apparent disabilities in the workplace and found that individuals who disclosed were significantly more satisfied at work and more productive.

As employers, companies can create a safe workplace culture that promotes the free flow of information and supports employees who are hiding non-apparent disabilities or covering in some other way. Some things to consider are:

  • Offer Safe Space forums, such as frequent, confidential, open hours for Employee Assistance Programs
  • Make it safe to self-disclose by promoting self-disclosure before and during the hiring process, and periodically thereafter. This enables organizations to make the appropriate investments in accommodations to support all of their employees
  • Offer and regularly communicate benefits and workplace programs that focus on mental health and wellbeing
  • Leverage Employee Resource Groups (and especially disability-focused ERGS) to provide educational sessions for the entire employee population
  • Different cultures view disabilities differently and content often helps to translate and increase the effectiveness of the programs
  • Offer a guest speaker series that focuses on non-apparent disabilities
  • Align Corporate Social Responsibility efforts to support non-apparent disabilities as well as visible disabilities

Creating an environment of safety when it comes to mental health and wellbeing provides a number of benefits. First and foremost it provides individuals who need it support, especially when early intervention is applied. Paying attention to mental health in the workplace has both individual outcomes and organizational outcomes.

Individual outcomes include:

  • Health and wellbeing
  • Early intervention 3
  • Productivity and job satisfaction
  • Good citizenship
  • Flexible and innovative
  • Engaged
  • Are likely to live longer…be sick less often…have happier work and home lives

Organizational outcomes include:

  • Low sickness absence
  • Better return to work outcomes
  • Low turnover
  • Attractive to recruits
  • Higher satisfaction of staff and customers
  • Employee commitment
  • Higher levels of engagement
  • Increased productivity

It is essential that organizations continue to find ways to make their workplaces environments in which people can feel safe to seek the support they need, no matter who they are.

To read Working Mother Research Institute’s Uncovering Hidden Potential: Non-Apparent Disabilities in the Workplace report, click here.

About the Authors

Deborah Tsai Munster
Vice President of People, Culture, & Operations
Seramount