Workplace Wellbeing

What I Wish HR Leaders Knew About Schizophrenia: A Therapist’s Perspective

With the right role, people with schizophrenia can contribute greatly to an organization’s success, just like any other employee. Here are a few key things that HR leaders need to know.

Written by
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Joycinth Jones
Mental Health Counselor
Clinically reviewed by
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Man with schizophrenia in a white shirt holding his head in his hand

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    What do you know about schizophrenia?

    If you’re like many, popular culture has greatly defined your understanding of this condition. You may think people with schizophrenia are violent, constantly having delusions, unable to accomplish anything meaningful, and best left alone.

    But few movies or memes show what it’s really like to experience schizophrenia and how someone with the disorder can live a rich, full life.    

    Research shows that rates of violence for people with schizophrenia are lower than for other mental health disorders. And risk factors for violence, including prior history of violence and substance abuse in individuals without mental health conditions, are the same for those with any mental health condition. 

    As a therapist, I’ve worked with people diagnosed with schizophrenia for over 15 years. An HR leader is an important gateway and key to the successful employment and retention of an individual with schizophrenia. 

    Here are some things I wish HR leaders knew about schizophrenia.  

    What is schizophrenia?

    Schizophrenia is a mental health disorder that is marked primarily by psychosis. While hallucinations—seeing, hearing, or feeling things that aren’t present—and delusions—fixed, false beliefs—are common, people with the condition can also experience reduced motivation, motor impairment, cognitive impairment, and difficulty with relationships.

    Schizophrenia usually manifests early in life, between adolescence and early adulthood, although symptoms can start to develop in childhood. The condition may have a genetic component: people with family members with a history of schizophrenia are six times more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder.

    Understanding schizophrenia: addressing common questions

    Schizophrenia is a relatively uncommon condition, contributing to its widespread misunderstanding.  

    According to Johns Hopkins, only 1% of the global population has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. In comparison, 18% have panic disorder, 2.6% have bipolar disorder, and 9.5% have depression. 

    Due to its rarity, many misconceptions about schizophrenia could make employers hesitant to hire affected individuals. Here are some common questions employers often ask about people working with schizophrenia. 

    Are people with schizophrenia violent?

    Popular culture often portrays people with this disorder as violent. But multiple studies have shown that most people with this condition don’t display violent behavior.

    A study of 1,435 participants with schizophrenia found that 19 out of 20 people had no incidence of violence over a two-year period. Risk factors for violence in this population include drug use and being a victim of recent violence.

    However, people with schizophrenia do sometimes harm themselves. The lifetime suicide rate is approximately 10%.

    Do schizophrenic episodes always involve delusions?

    Schizophrenic episodes can vary significantly from person to person and may not always involve dramatic delusions. In truth, the disorder and symptoms manifest in various ways.

    Some individuals with the condition may experience intermittent delusions, while others may have extended episodes featuring hallucinations or catatonia with abnormal body movements.

    Can people with schizophrenia work?

    While schizophrenia can be a disabling condition, it doesn’t mean individuals affected by it can’t work. With the right support and accommodations, many people with schizophrenia can thrive in the workplace. Meaningful employment can be crucial in stabilizing symptoms and enhancing overall well-being.

    In fact, individuals with schizophrenia want to work and can succeed in jobs that align with their interests, strengths, and natural abilities. Employers can make a significant difference by offering reasonable accommodations, such as flexible work schedules, opportunities to work remotely, regular breaks, a quiet workspace, and sick leave.

    Are medications the only effective treatment for schizophrenia?  

    While medication can be essential to managing schizophrenia, it’s not the sole solution. People with schizophrenia benefit from multiple pillars of support. Significant social support, engaging in meaningful work and activities, and adhering to routines can reduce the condition’s impact and promote overall well-being.   

    Living and working with schizophrenia

    Schizophrenia stands as one of the top 15 leading causes of disability worldwide, yet there’s hope for those living with the condition to live fulfilling lives. With the right combination of medication, social support, and other accommodations, individuals with schizophrenia can work, raise families, and experience a life beyond episodes. 

    It may come as a surprise to many that some well-known individuals have thrived despite their schizophrenia diagnosis. Comedian Darrel Hammond, renowned writer and artist Zelda Fitzgerald, and former pop star Aaron Carter exemplify how building highly successful careers and living in the public eye is possible while managing schizophrenia.

    Schizophrenia in the workplace

    Currently, about 10-15% of people with schizophrenia are in the workforce, but 70% would like to be working. Understandably, misperceptions of the disorder can make it challenging to get (and sometimes keep) a job. 

    And yet, with the proper role, people with schizophrenia can contribute significantly to an organization’s success, just like any other employee.

    But there are a few essential things that HR leaders need to know. 

    Hiring a person with schizophrenia

    Schizophrenia is a protected condition under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Like with any candidate, HR and hiring managers need to decide if someone with schizophrenia has the right qualifications for the role and can do the job with reasonable accommodations.

    Schizophrenia affects each person differently. To be fair to an individual presenting with this or any disorder, hiring personnel would need to give them a fair chance. 

    Generally, individuals with schizophrenia often have difficulty engaging in teamwork and using the executive functioning skills of goal setting and focusing that are needed in most workplace settings. These factors can keep otherwise qualified individuals with the disorder from getting and keeping a job, resulting in credibility issues. 

    And yet, with reasonable accommodations (those that don’t intrude on workflow or require global changes), people with schizophrenia can be highly productive. 

    For example, consider a programmer who is good at her job. But when she’s in a psychotic episode, she’s not functional.

    In her case, reasonable accommodations could include working with her treatment provider to determine (and avoid) potential triggers in the workplace, providing a quiet place to work, or even allowing her to work in a room by herself, so she doesn’t have to constantly interact with other people.

    How to talk about schizophrenia in the workplace

    If you’ve hired someone with schizophrenia, that information must remain confidential. However, if the employee shares their diagnosis with others, you may want to provide additional education about the condition. 

    If employees feel scared or uncertain, consider sharing:

    • Information about what schizophrenia looks like and the many false beliefs about it
    • Strategies and accommodations that are in place to ensure workflow isn’t disrupted
    • How to recognize a schizophrenic episode and what to do. For example, the employee may sit and stare or freeze, and he prefers that you leave him alone during this time.
    • With permission, the employee’s history with schizophrenia. For example, “She’s had this condition since she was 16 and is not dangerous to herself or others. She was able to go to college and graduate and appreciates being left alone in her office to work.”

    Consider, too, sharing these helpful resources about schizophrenia to build understanding and empathy:

    Offering a mental health benefit

    Mental health support from employers has become a vital aspect of overall well-being, particularly for individuals with conditions like schizophrenia. Fast access to therapy and medication management is critical in identifying triggers for episodes and implementing strategies to reduce and prevent them.

    By offering a comprehensive mental health benefit, employers can foster an open and compassionate environment for workplace discussions about mental health disorders. This initiative provides valuable information to dispel misconceptions and reduce stigma surrounding conditions like schizophrenia. 

    Learn what it's like living and working with bipolar disorder and how employers can better support bipolar individuals and their families.  

    About the Author
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    Joycinth Jones
    Mental Health Counselor

    Joycinth Jones is a licensed mental health counselor in the state of Indiana. She has over 20 years of experience working with a range of behavioral health concerns from an integrative perspective, with both pediatric and adult populations. She has a passion for writing and sharing information that supports the mental and physical health and wellness of individuals.

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