Praise for ERA stance on worker

The Mental Health Foundation has applauded an Employment Relations Authority decision that found a Palmerston North kohanga reo employee was wrongfully forced out of her job on mental health grounds.

Development and policy director Hugh Norriss said it was disturbing that prejudice against people recovering from mental illness was still happening in workplaces.

But he admired the bravery of Te Ao Marama Kohanga Reo employee Fiona Hunter in fighting against the discrimination shown by her former employers, and he endorsed the ERA decision.

He said the foundation had been working hard to counter the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness.

"While there have been many successes over the years, cases like this emphasise the ongoing need," he said.

The authority's decision found that Hunter had taken time off work for treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, and had medical clearance to go back to work.

But after kohanga reo parents said they were worried about her demeanour at a staff farewell, and were concerned about her being around their children, the kohanga committee suspended her, and pressured her to resign.

ERA member Trish MacKinnon said the woman had lost her job because of ignorance about and prejudice toward mental illness.

Norriss said many people in the workplace had a range of illnesses or disability at some time, and those with mental health problems should not be treated any differently to others.

"We are not sure why this kind of prejudice still exists, but it needs to be stopped because of the harm that it does."

About half of all New Zealanders experienced mental health issues at some time, the most common being depression, anxiety and substance abuse and addiction.

He said being able to work was important for people recovering from any kind of illness or injury.

"It is really important that you can get back to normal life, to socialise, to find meaning and purpose and status in the community.

"To deny someone of that is very harmful and ends up as a double blow for people."

The workplace is one of the key areas of focus in the foundation's new Like Minds National Plan, as studies had shown that was one of the main areas of life where people with experience of mental illness encountered discrimination.

The foundation encouraged employers to work with staff, to identify any problems or changes necessary to help people continue to perform their jobs.

It helped employers also, to retain the skills those workers brought to the workplace.

Norriss said the other danger with tolerating prejudice against people with any form of mental illness was that it made others hesitate to ask for help if they felt their mental health was suffering, for fear of being judged. "A lot of mental health problems can be nipped in the bud if you get help early, or they can be minimised."

Norriss said he encouraged people to be open in telling others about past experiences with mental illness, to have a relapse plan, and to tell the boss. "However, after hearing about this case, you can understand why people might still be reluctant to do that."

Manawatu Standard