Disclose or not? Germanwings tragedy brings new attention to mental illness and workplace

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The reported mental health issues of the Germanwings pilot who deliberately crashed a plane last week, killing 150, are fueling international discussions about safety, screenings and precautions in the workplace.

The tragedy is also having a big impact on people in less stressful jobs. People in all walks of life  struggle with mental health issues — and worry whether they should disclose their problems to the boss.

Philadelphia writer and journalist Alaina Mabaso was catching up on the news when she saw the headline that made her head spin. “Something like ‘bombshell, about the pilot involved in this crash, he was in psychotherapy.’ I read that and I cried.”

Mabaso is also in psychotherapy. She struggles with depression – and has talked openly about her illness since a hospitalization last year. It’s a decision she calls liberating. “The energy that goes into concealing that and hiding that actually is a lot more wear and tear on you emotionally and physically than coping with the actual problem.”

But she still questions her frankness — especially right now. Already, there’s an issue with people assuming that she’s not able to handle her work or make big decisions, she said. “And now you have this other level of people believing that you are dangerous, and man, how do you navigate that as somebody with these challenges?”

Mabaso, who works full time as a freelance writer, said this setting allows her the flexibility to deal with the challenges of her illness. Sometimes, she might take the morning off if she is not feeling well, and then write into the early morning hours to complete a job.

Disclosing mental health issues — or not — to an employer is a tricky subject. Philadelphia Magazine senior writer Liz Spikol who struggles with mental health issues said it’s the most-asked question she gets.

“You know my attitude is … it’s a terrible thing, but … is it pertinent, is there a reason to tell them?”

Spikol said she’s been treated differently because of her illness in previous employment settings.

“Two people at an office can be tired and irritable, but if one person has a known history of mental health issues, that tiredness and irritability will be interpreted differently,” she said.

Psychologist Petra Kottsieper studies mental health issues in the workplace at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. Research shows that most employers prefer not to hire people with mental illnesses, she said, but hiding an issue can lead to additional problems for the employee. “For example, increased stress, increased distance from co-workers, that can actually lead to missed opportunities, such as promotions, because of not being open,” she said.

A cost-benefit analysis can help people decide whether they should disclose their issues, she suggested.

“Am I looking for accommodations? Am I looking to be closer to my co-workers? Is it to be more authentic as a human being, what are the possible costs?”

Kottsieper says employers could offer more support to people with mental illnesses – for example by including information on these issues in diversity trainings, or by inviting speakers who are successful professionals despite struggling with mental illness.

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