Experiences of work

In the past, people with severe mental health problems were often seen as incapable of working. Today, the importance of having opportunities to participate in meaningful work and earn a living is more widely recognised than in the past. This is acknowledged in the Victorian Mental Health Act 2014, which has as one of its guiding principles that people be provided with mental health services “with the aim of bringing about the best possible therapeutic outcomes and promoting recovery and full participation in community life” (section 11(1)(b)).

Many of the people we spoke to were in paid employment or worked as (unpaid) volunteers. Others were studying, in caring roles, or retired. A few people had more than one role, such as working and parenting, while some were not currently working or studying. Of those people who were working, most were employed in the mental health sector, though a few worked in retail, law, manufacturing, or other parts of the community sector. Part-time employment was common. When discussing their experiences, people talked about what helped them find and maintain work as well as the barriers they faced. They also reflected on what it was like working in the mental health sector.

Quick Links

Supports
Barriers
Working in the mental health sector


Supports

People described several factors that had helped them find or maintain work, including contacts and referrals to people who helped them find employment, flexible working hours, and supportive supervisors (when they disclosed their mental health problems to them).

A few people said they secured employment through contacts they made in mental health services. Cindy emphasised the importance of ‘who you know’, explaining that she found her job in a mental health organisation after starting as a volunteer.

Nicky described how she got her job as a ‘consumer consultant’ through ‘networking’ in mental health service organisations.

View profile

Most employed people we spoke to worked part-time. Some emphasised the importance of having flexible working hours, while others talked about the need to balance hours worked with the income they earned. Having recently lost one of her two part-time jobs, Jenny needed to find another one, while Cindy felt she had too many hours, but said she was ‘not going to complain’ because she valued her workplace for other reasons.

Allen described how working part-time had ‘multiple benefits’ for him. He felt supported by his manager.

View profile

Some people commented that people with severe mental health problems could be better supported to participate in work. Those who spoke about having understanding, flexible employers were appreciative of them. Being able to take sick leave was important but not always easy to negotiate (see also Discrimination and social responses to mental health problems). Others such as Brendan discussed the difficulty of obtaining flexibility and understanding from an employer without disclosing mental health problems.

Barriers

Barriers to finding or maintaining employment included concern about disclosing a mental health problem, diagnosis or hospital admission, self-doubt, disincentives built into the design of social security benefits, and lack of support from mental health professionals.

A few people thought self-doubt was a barrier to maintaining a particular career or job. Alice described how before she became ‘unwell’, she never had ‘professional self-doubt’ about her ability to work well in her corporate role. However a mental health practitioner who suggested that her job made her ‘stressed’ planted ‘a seed of doubt’ in her mind. Alice went on to resign, then began working in the community sector.

Brendan described how his ‘doubts’ about his ability to do his job influenced his decision to resign.

View profile

Some people described worrying about disclosing their mental health problems to employers. Allen said he had not told anyone at work about his ‘diagnosis’ because he was concerned about the possibility that his colleagues might ‘see someone as a diagnosis rather than as they present themselves’.

Alice confided to her boss that she had had a compulsory admission. Later, a situation arose in which she felt ‘judged’ by her boss because of her disclosure.

View profile

A few people described different factors that either hindered them from seeking additional paid work or left them ill-equipped to return to work after a period of being ‘unwell’. While Vanessa described facing a disincentive to seek paid work by the fact that Centrelink would then ‘cut’ her income support, Alice said that when she was discharged from a mental health unit, returning to her corporate job was very difficult because she ‘was not prepped with any story to tell anybody in the organisation’. As a result, she left after her first day back. Mental health practitioners were not always supportive of people’s attempts to find more or better work.

When Jenny was unhappy in her job, she said her psychiatrist did not support her attempt to find another job.

View profile

Working in the mental health sector

Many of the people we spoke to who were employed were working in the mental health sector, either as consumer consultants or in other roles. They described varying experiences, ranging from feeling ’empowered’ to expressing uncertainty about the possibly limiting impact of working in mental health on their sense of self. Some talked about the benefits they personally derived from feeling well supported by the mental health organisations which employed them. Others emphasised the opportunity that working in the mental health sector gave them to ‘help’ others going through similar experiences to themselves.

Cindy felt ’empowered’ by her work for a mental health organisation.

View profile

Some people described both advantages and possible drawbacks of working in the mental health sector. While Allen said he appreciated that his job gave him ‘a wage, an occupation and something to do’, he reflected that working in mental health can perhaps prevent people from ‘getting their minds off’ their mental health issues.

Lisa said she felt in ‘two minds’ about her role which identified her as a person with ‘lived experience’ of mental health problems.

View profile

Others reported enjoying their work in the mental health sector. Cindy said the organisation she worked for ‘really know[s] how to treat people with mental illness’. She felt ‘lucky’ because she did not think she could have been ‘this well’ without her current role. Brendan talked about a role he had supporting people with mental health problems to find work, which involved ‘helping people’ to navigate challenges he himself had experienced.

For Nicky, getting a job in the mental health sector after not being ‘part of the workforce’ for a while made her feel more a ‘part of society’

View profile