The recent incident involving a Lufthansa co-pilot who allegedly took control of his Germanwings plane and crashed it into a mountainside in the French Alps, killing all 150 passengers on board, has lent new urgency to old questions about mental illness and disclosure.
Disclosure is one of those words that signify honesty, transparency and openness. Members of boards disclose a personal interest prior to decision-making, and listed companies pre-emptively disclose matters that may affect the market. For most people, disclosure is a word that is free of negative connotations.
Unless, that is, you have something you do not wish to disclose.
If you are a person suffering from a mental illness and you are looking for a job or are keen to keep your job, any mention of disclosure to an employer or to a potential employer, is likely to inspire dread.
You know that if you don’t disclose and workplace problems arise related to your illness, you risk being accused of deceit or culpable secrecy. You know also that if you disclose in the recruitment phase, you are almost certain not to succeed in getting the job even if your credentials are the best on offer. You know you will be judged on your disclosed disability rather than your demonstrable capabilities.
A little over a year ago, the organisation I lead made a submission to the ASX Corporate Governance Council on potential revisions to the guidelines and recommendations the Council routinely makes to ASX member companies. The submission noted our research which indicated the existence of a workplace perception, rightly or wrongly, that people with disability pose a potentially costly risk to organisations that employ them.
Without making a judgement on the merits or otherwise of that perception, we argued that a case exists for appropriate management and oversight of the corporate risk, and that a ‘light touch’ reporting regime would amount to evidence that listed companies take the matter seriously.
In addition, we noted the diminishing representation of employed people with disability in successive Australian Public Service Commission State of the Service reports. We accepted the stated view that the numbers were not as bad as they looked because of an apparent high level of employee non-disclosure within the public service.
While we were not able to cite actual cases of non-disclosure in our ASX submission, we speculated that prevailing organisational cultures would be likely to have a bearing on employee readiness to disclose a disability that is known to the person but would otherwise go unnoticed by their colleagues or by management. Primary among that type of disability are cases of people with a mental illness.
We concluded that workplace cultures which make it difficult to disclose are cultures that contain within them a degree of governance dysfunction, and potentially expose the organisation to serious risk.
To illustrate, we referenced a fictional case because by their nature undisclosed cases of disability are not available in the public domain. Carrie Mathison is the central protagonist in the US television series Homeland. Her case is a credible example of an employee with a serious bi-polar disability. While her condition needs to be personally managed by daily medication, it is also a condition that enables her as an employee to perform at a markedly higher level as an intelligence operative than her peers who do not suffer from the condition.
However, fear of losing her job prevents her disclosing her condition to her superiors who have come to rely on her outstanding performance level and uncanny judgement. Because her fear is fully justified, she sources her medication covertly to avoid alerting her employer to the condition. A number of things can go wrong in such a situation, and inevitably do. Circumstances separate her from the source of the medication for a period, and what was a potential workplace risk becomes real risk, and contributes to a national security crisis.
Exposure to that type of risk, we proposed, would be forestalled were management to take responsibility for the creation of workplace cultures that encourage disclosure, and to report the fact within a ‘light touch’ context. Disclosure would not need to be made to co-workers or to the world at large but only to management which could ensure appropriate monitoring and so avert the need for cover-up activities to ensure that knowledge about the condition was protected. That way, employee privacy would be maintained and employers would be in a better defensive position, in the event of an untoward incident, to show that proper oversight was foreseen and exercised.
In the wake of the Germanwings crash in the French Alps, it is no longer necessary to resort to fiction in order to illustrate the governance and risk issues on this matter. Following a search for evidence of the cause of the crash, reports about the co-pilot’s mental health have emerged.
A Euronews report last week indicated that the German Federal Aviation Office had ‘no information’ about the co-pilot’s history of depression before giving him a licence to fly commercial aircraft, while Lufthansa stated bafflingly that it had met ‘its duty to provide information to the LBA’, and insisted that the pilot ‘had been certified 100 per cent fit to fly’.
While it will be some time before this tragic incident is fully investigated, it appears on the face of it that the co-pilot had mental health issues and had taken time off work to deal with them, but that the risk potential was not given the prominence it deserved.
With an estimated one in five Australians likely to suffer a mental health issue at some time during their lives, I suggest it is timely that the governance and reporting issues relating to mental illness in workplaces are revisited at appropriately senior levels in the private and public sectors.
Lyn Goodear is the chief executive of the Australian Human Resources Institute
This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review on 20.04.2015.