Report: both employee and employer have rights and obligations when it comes to managing this sensitive issue

One in four of us will experience a mental health difficulty at some point in our lives - and deciding whether or not to disclose details of a mental health issue to employers and colleagues can be stressful for people returning to work. Professor Jim Lucey, Medical Director of St. Patrick's Mental Health Services and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College, recently joined the Today With Sean O'Rourke show to discuss the matter further.

"Every person who is returning to work expects to be able to return to work with the same rights, accommodations and prospects as somebody else who perhaps hasn’t yet had a mental health difficulty", he said. "Every human person has a right to privacy. So a person with a mental health difficulty has the same rights to privacy as anyone else. When you start from that point of view, everything else fits into place."

Legally, there is no obligation on anyone to disclose a mental health difficulty to their employer. Equally, an employer is not entitled to ask whether an employee has ever had a mental illness of any kind.

So should people returning to work after a mental health issue tell their bosses of their experience? "My advice is that they should know their rights", said Professor Lucey. "They don’t have to and the employer can’t ask. So they need to understand the culture of the environment they’re working in."

Returning to work is a key part of mental health recovery

Equality legislation has established certain protections and "reasonable accommodations" for people heading back into work after a period of absence due to their mental health. Some of these include allowing for a phased return to work, flexibility to attend an out-patient appointment or facilitating work from home a day or two a week, for example.

But how can employers make these "accommodations" if they aren’t in possession of the details of their employee's mental health issue?

"Actually if you knew the diagnosis, it wouldn’t assist you at all in making the right accommodations", maintains Professor Lucey. "You’re the employer, you’re trying to assist somebody integrating into a work environment in a mentally healthy way. That simply means you’re trying to reduce the amount of stress… but you’re not trying to be the clinician. It’s none of your concern what the diagnosis actually is."

While there are many anxieties around returning to work, how career progression might be effected and how co-workers might react, it's important to remember one thing, says Professor Lucey. "Returning to work is a key part of mental health recovery. What recovery means is the capacity to live, work and love again. Ruling out a return to work would be an appalling thing."

You can listen to Professor Lucey’s interview in full below.

You can access the support information referenced in the interview here