Every time I go to press ‘publish’ on a tricky post exploring my mental health I pause for a moment. The way my blog has developed means that my personal struggles and successes sit alongside blogs about my work and details of my skills, training and experience.
I know stigma and discrimination around mental health in the workplace exists. I spent 2014 providing evidence based reports on mental health policies and support in a number of organisations across a range of sectors for the Time To Change Organisational Healthcheck programme. Tom Oxley writes a good piece about how the programme worked on pages 10 and 11 of this newsletter.
I spoke to people in every workplace who said that they wouldn’t tell their manager if they were experiencing a mental health problem. Many said they would lie about taking time off.
”I’d probably say I had a migraine or something”
Those who had been honest about taking time off for a mental health problem said they felt that now they had more to prove.
Unfortunately in some cases I could understand why. Some managers said they felt people with mental health problems couldn’t ‘cope’. Others saw investment in employees’ mental and physical health as a burden rather than something that makes moral and business sense.
”You’ve got to be careful or people will just take advantage, start using ‘depression’ as an excuse.”
”We need people on top form to do this job – if you’re depressed you just won’t be able to cope.”
1 in 6 employees are currently dealing with a mental health problem. Like colds, flu, delayed trains, bereavement and accidents it’s always going to be part of a workforce. It’s how employers deal with it that counts.
My mental health is part of what makes me. It’s part of what makes a life – and in many cases it’s part of what makes me good at the work I do.
In the run up to Time To Change’s Time To Talk Day on Thursday I thought I’d share some of the reasons why I press publish on those tricky posts every time.
- If mental health in the workplace isn’t talked about, it becomes harder to manage.
Employees feel unable to mention difficulties at a time when steps could be taken to help resolve them. They don’t realise colleagues might be going through something similar. They don’t have anyone they can talk to about what might help. They certainly won’t have workplace initiatives to give them suggestions, advice or support.
Imagine if someone felt they had to hide their broken leg or back problem from their employer. They’d be sitting at the bottom of the stairs grimacing in pain but unable to get to their desk or explain why they need a lift. If they do struggle to their computer they may be unable to concentrate as their chair is ill designed and it’s making their pain worse. Their condition might deteriorate as they try to hide it. They become unreliable. They might end up having to have an operation that means they are off sick much longer term. The employer – who knows no better – may think it was a problem with their approach or ability. In fact an open conversation and a few practical changes would mean they were able to work to full capacity again.
The more it’s talked about, the more employers will start to acknowledge that all their staff have mental health. The more they’ll understand that at any given moment some will have mental health problems too.
Then they can seek information and training. They can help employees talk openly about their needs. Appropriate support can be put in place early (Wellness Action Plans or WAPs are good) and in most cases people continue to work effectively.
- I don’t think that telling people I manage a mental health problem is admitting a weakness.
It’s sharing strengths I’ve learned. Managing my depression, anxiety and eating issues has improved my emotional intelligence, my empathy and my resilience. Withdrawing from my anti-depressants required determination. I know what I need to function effectively and how best to achieve it. I know my abilities and have the self awareness to recognise the edge of my strength before I reach it.
- Working helps me. It makes me stronger and boosts my self-esteem.
Everyone does better when they enjoy what they are doing. I love my work. I want to remind employers that people who manage a mental health problem can also be resilient, capable and the right person for the job.
We’re all human and we all have physical and mental frailties that mean sometimes we can’t work to full capacity. Anyone who thinks otherwise is kidding themselves. In the long term I do a lot better if I’m open about what helps me do the best I can – and why.
I know that I’ve been lucky with the employers, colleagues and freelance projects I’ve had. I work in a world where it’s generally easier to talk openly about mental health. And of course doing so is absolutely a personal choice (Time To Change has some advice on disclosing mental health problems to employers).
I don’t know what employers will think in the future. Maybe I will lose work occasionally. But I’ve seen the impact on workplaces where organisations don’t take the mental and physical health of their employees seriously. It’s often pretty desperate and miserable.
I share my experiences to help myself, to help others and to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. It doesn’t make sense to me to do that partially.
Managing a mental health problem involves determination, bravery, strength and self-awareness. I think I’m happy adding that to my CV.