Technical report

Disabling employment obstacles: a study exploring accommodations that can assist government employees with anxiety

Anxiety Employee mental health Employee protection Working conditions Mental health Australia Queensland
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This report summarises the findings of a study which examined the work experiences of Queensland public servants living with a diagnosed anxiety disorder.

Key findings are:

1) Workplace accommodations tailored to individuals with anxiety disorders allow them to reach and retain their positions;

2) Some employees with anxiety disorders report accommodations to be missing;

3) Not all people experiencing disability want accommodations;

4) Organisational barriers and stigma can stop individuals receiving accommodations;

5) Accommodating employees with anxiety disorders can improve workplace productivity.

We conducted research to examine the following three questions:

1) What accommodations can assist persons with anxiety disorders to reach and retain government positions?

2) What challenges can be encountered in accommodating government employees with anxiety disorders?

3) With accommodations in place, how can anxiety disorders assist to improve work performance?

Of the 20 departments invited, two Queensland Government departments participated in the study. A total of 71 employees currently employed within these departments and who met all eligibility criteria participated in the study by undertaking an online survey.

Accommodations for disability were variably received by participants:

• Not all government employees with anxiety disorders need or want to receive accommodations. Eight study participants reported not requesting or missing any accommodations.

• Many study participants reported receiving some form of accommodation to help them reach and retain their current positions in government. These included ‘standard’ flexible work arrangements (e.g. telecommuting, flexible work hours and part-time work) and ‘non-standard’ personalised flexible work arrangements. These ‘personalised’ accommodations include support services (i.e. professional counselling), balanced workloads (i.e. not overloading employees who may be at risk of overworking), presentation delivery options (i.e. options to giving traditional ‘stand up in front of the audience’ presentations), anxiety friendly office designs (e.g. relocating to quiet office areas); and secondment opportunities.

The receipt of diverse, personalised accommodations highlights that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to accommodating government employees with anxiety disorders. As emphasised by one study participant, the availability of accommodations may be the difference between a person experiencing mental illness being employed or not.

Challenges to accommodating employees with anxiety disorders were expressed in the following ways:

• While standard and personalised accommodations were reported to be missing by some study participants, other accommodations were found to be totally absent (e.g. options to the ‘interview’ job selection method, anxiety disorder awareness activities in the workplace, and anxiety disorder friendly team building activities).

• When accommodations are missing, some employees with anxiety disorders may decide to ‘self-accommodate’ to the detriment of their productivity. • Being stigmatised or penalised were the most commonly reported personal barriers to making accommodation requests. As highlighted by one respondent, “I have seen others identify themselves as having these disorders and they have been overlooked or treated 'differently' because of this.” Study participants also reported not wanting any special treatment, fearing colleagues’ reactions and privacy concerns.

• There were organisational barriers to making accommodation requests including requests being a low management priority, communication problems with managers, workplace culture, anxiety disorder misconceptions and budget constraints.

• A range of accommodation requests were reported as rejected (e.g. requests for flexible work hours, part-time work, telecommuting, and secondment opportunities). Almost one third (i.e. 28.6 per cent) of study participants who had their accommodation requests rejected stated that no reasons were provided.

• It is important that accommodation requests are not summarily dismissed because they do not fit with a particular manager’s view of how business in government is ‘normally’ done. In the words of a study participant, “senior officers are of the old school mentality and often do not understand the impact mental illness does.”

Anxiety enhanced performance for some employees when it was kept at a manageable level:

• For some participants, accommodations improved their work performance by helping to keep anxiety at a manageable level. This fits with the Yerkes-Dodson Law which says that performance lowers once a manageable level of anxiety is surpassed.

• Accommodating employees with anxiety disorders may therefore be seen as an ‘investment’ in work performance.

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