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
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,”
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
“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
”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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.