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WVU researcher finds fears of workplace discrimination drive performance challenges for employees with mental illnesses

WVU researcher finds fears of workplace discrimination drive performance challenges for employees with mental illnesses

A woman sits and looks out the window

Incompetent. Lazy. Crazy.

Organizational psychologist and West Virginia University researcher Kayla Follmer said these are just a few of the stereotypes employees with mental illnesses face in the workplace. 

“There’s still a considerable amount of stigma associated with mental illness,” Follmer said. “Even a lot of researchers unwittingly attribute employees’ negative outcomes to mental illness.” 

Follmer’s work, though, suggests that’s not the case.

In a paper published in Group and Organization Management, Follmer, associate professor of management at the John Chambers College of Business and Economics, details the newest round of findings from her study of 279 U.S. adults who have a professional diagnosis of depression or bipolar disorder and are employed at least 20 hours per week. 

Her research shows one reason employees may engage in deviant workplace behaviors is the fear of being discriminated against on the job. 

“Importantly, fear of discrimination predicted employees’ deviant behavior above and beyond their mental illness symptoms,” Follmer said, suggesting that simply having a mental illness is not the root cause of problematic workplace behaviors.  

The participants, who held positions as diverse as animal caretaker, database architect, missionary, housekeeper and engineer, answered three stages of survey questions. They rated the likelihood that they would receive a negative performance evaluation or be overly scrutinized if everyone at work knew about their mood disorder, for example, and indicated whether they agreed or disagreed that the disorder defined them.  

Follmer’s analysis of their responses, conducted with coauthors including Jake Follmer, assistant professor at the College of Applied Human Sciences, explored whether participants believed they were likely to be discriminated against at work because of their mental illness, how the fear of discrimination could prevent them from being authentic in the workplace and the degree to which that fear and inauthenticity could drive participants to harm their relationships with coworkers and employers. 

“If you are able to be authentic, that might mean you’re able to freely talk about having a doctor’s appointment, about how you’re feeling that day or about your diagnosis without fear or worry about how it comes across to other people,” Kayla Follmer said. “Or maybe it just means you’re not talking about your mental illness, but you’re also not constantly monitoring how you’re behaving or analyzing what you’re saying, figuring out if this is this a safe space or not. In some ways, authenticity is just being able to engage in a way that feels true to yourself without that constant stress or pressure of trying to evaluate how it’s coming across to others.” 

When an employee’s emotional resources run dry because of their ongoing self-monitoring, counterproductive work behaviors become an issue. Follmer said she looked at two kinds of counterproductive work behaviors: interpersonal and organizational. 

“Interpersonal deviant behaviors are those directed at coworkers, such as acting rudely, cursing or making hurtful comments. Organizational deviant behaviors are those behaviors directed towards the organization that harm productivity, such as stealing work property, falsifying records, daydreaming, sharing confidential information and intentionally working slower than one is capable.”  

How likely an employee is to sabotage their work relationships or their organization depends in part on two factors. There’s their symptom severity: how intense or extensive the symptoms of their mental illness are. And there’s their stigma centrality: the degree to which they see their mental illness as a core part of their identity.  

As expected, Follmer found that employees’ fears about discrimination resulted in even greater inauthenticity for people with more severe symptoms of depression or mania. 

Follmer, though, didn’t expect the results she discovered when it came to stigma centrality. 

“We found that when somebody considers their mental illness as very central to who they are, they were less likely to behave authentically at work. That absolutely was a surprise to us because prior research, particularly related to individuals in the LGBTQ community, has found that when people really hold a part of their identity as central to them, they were more likely to behave authentically. But we found the opposite.”  

While Follmer emphasized that the goal “is not to compare groups with regard to who has it worse,” she speculated that one reason stigma centrality works so differently for employees with mental illness could be tied to “differences in societal perceptions of mental illness versus sexual orientation, as well as opportunities for support. You think about June being Pride Month and just how much conversation there was surrounding Pride and opportunities for support groups and programming. There really isn’t that level yet of societal support for mental illness.” 

Follmer stressed that talking openly about mental illness isn’t necessary for authentic engagement in the workplace — employees with mental illness don’t need to share their diagnoses at work to be themselves there. 

On one hand, sharing a mental health diagnosis at work may make an employee more self-conscious, not less. 

“If you disclose one time and never talk about your mental illness ever again, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re authentic, right?” Follmer said. “In fact, in prior research we found there have been individuals who have disclosed and then regretted it or were mistreated as a result of it and then still continue to engage in some identity management strategies.” 

Equally, Follmer added, “somebody could conceal their depression or bipolar disorder and not tell other people about it, but still bring their true self to work, particularly if they don’t consider their diagnosis central to their self-concept. There’s a complex relationship between disclosure and authenticity that needs to be teased apart.” 

Also complicating the issue is that an employee doesn’t even need to experience discrimination for the process of stigmatization, identity threat, identity suppression, inauthenticity and counterproductive work behaviors to play out. Follmer’s study showed that “simply the belief that one would be discriminated against if others knew about their mental illness predicted counterproductive work behaviors two months later.”  

Given that fact, she pointed out that interventions that focus on addressing discrimination after it has already occurred may not suffice. Preventive measures that focus on creating inclusive organizational climates could likely eliminate employees’ fears about potential discrimination, Follmer said. 

By preventive measures and inclusive organizations, Follmer means employee assistance plans, health insurance, time off for medical appointments and tools such as stigma reduction and ally trainings. 

“A lot of European countries tend to have workplace laws that are more supportive of employees,” Follmer said. “For instance, in France, they have a rule related to email. Employees are not required to respond to email after work hours and they can’t be punished for that. It’s this clear attempt to have a line between work life and home life and we certainly don’t have anything like that here in the United States. It’s not just how we treat mental illness, but also how we treat people in general and how we support them in all the facets of their life that contribute to their overall well-being.” 

Follmer specializes in research around the workplace experiences of employees with mental illness and severe psychological outcomes such as suicidal ideation because, she said, people with mental illness “are so often excluded from management research. When management research talks about diversity, it’s often focused on race or gender, more recently maybe sexual orientation, but there’s hardly any mention of individuals with mental illness

“It’s important to bring their experiences to light because they make up a significant portion of the work population,” Follmer said. “There’s a huge number of working adults who are managing a mental illness and managing their work responsibilities and I think we undercount how much that could really be affecting them.”

Citation: The Consequences of Not Being Me: Longitudinal Examination of the Relations Among Anticipated Discrimination, Authenticity, and Counterproductive Work Behaviors 

Read the original article on WVU Today


MEDIA CONTACT: Micaela Morrissette
Research Writer
WVU Research Communications

Chambers College