As part of my Time to Change Wales educator talks to managers and HR staff, I use my own lived experience to raise awareness of how stigma and discrimination can affect a persons recovery from or management of mental illness in the workplace, focusing on four main recognised factors:
1. Bad relations with colleagues
When experiencing a mental health problem, people may be struggling with all sorts of feelings and thoughts such sadness, guilt, weakness and failure, as well as doubting our own abilities. Having bad relations with colleagues will just act to confirm these negative thoughts and make it harder to stay well.
The biggest reason behind these bad relations is lack of understanding. People fear what they do not understand, and that fear leads people to act in unhelpful (and sometimes cruel) ways. I was once told by a manager that because I came to work with my make up and hair done, it was hard to believe there was anything wrong with me. In other words, because I looked ok, I must be ok.
"I was effectively in trouble for being ill, and was told it was a case of ‘if’ they would allow me back, not ‘when’. This is something that would never happen with a physical illness"
Colleagues never see you at your worst because these are the days you can’t make it to work. In my case these days sometimes lasted weeks, where the idea of getting dressed or brushing my teeth was like asking me to perform brain surgery. After one attempted suicide, whilst still in hospital, I was informed by work that I was subject to a disciplinary procedure for my absences. I was effectively in trouble for being ill, and was told it was a case of ‘if’ they would allow me back, not ‘when’. This is something that would never happen with a physical illness. When I did return, I was not allowed back into my previous department due to, in my managers words, there being ‘bad feeling towards me’ by colleagues who had had to cover my workload.
Communication and training is the key to resolving this, because the lack of these leads to misunderstanding and breeds contempt.
More and more employers are working with Time to Change Wales to end stigma in their workplaces. Find out how to get your organisation involved.
2. Lack of clear job description
As I mentioned, after a period off sick I was moved from my old department. What also happened was I was taken away from the role I loved and had trained for and was placed in the only department that had space for me. My new manager openly admitted they made up the role just to have something for me to do, the role had no title, no job description and no long-term plan for where it was heading. In fact, I didn’t even have my own desk. This situation meant that I had no goal and no particular purpose, at a time when I really needed one.
"My new manager openly admitted they made up the role just to have something for me to do"
A clear job description provides a sense of identity and a sense of achievement. When living with a mental illness, this is even more important as many of us have lost a sense of who we are, and work gives us this. Research shows that being unemployed for as little as one month is a significant predictor of depression, highlighting just how important being in work can be to a person’s mental health. But this is down to more than just being physically present at work, it is about feeling valued, being part of a team that wants you there and being respected in the role that you do. Not having a job description undermines all of these factors.
3. Mundane, repetitive work tasks
This one, in simple terms, comes down to trust. When I was moved role, I was given a set of tasks to complete that my manager openly admitted to me that no one had done for a couple of years, because they weren’t really needed, but were something to fill my time. This was not what I had been employed for, was not what I had trained for, and was not what I wanted to do for a career. But it was all I was offered and I felt I should be grateful to have any job.
"I needed to prove to them I was well enough, but they wouldn’t give me anything with which I could prove it. It was as though I had become unintelligent overnight, simply because I have depression"
Whenever I tried to discuss with my managers why I couldn’t have more responsibility, they dismissed me by saying “we will review it in six months”. Basically they were saying to me that I needed to prove to them I was well enough, but they wouldn’t give me anything with which I could prove it. It was as though I had become unintelligent overnight, simply because I have depression.
Because I desperately needed more responsibility, something to get my brain stuck into, I applied for some extra-curricular activities, such as a First Aid course. Without my knowledge, my name was removed from these activites by my manager, with no explanation given. Furthermore, I was stopped from having any interaction with clients, and even banned from going further up than the ground floor in case I was feeling suicidal.
Having a role with responsibilities, that challenges you and allows you to fulfil your potential is the key to staying well in the workplace, not mundane repetitive job tasks.
You can order a free anti-stigma campaign pack for your organisation.
4. Being overworked
In these times of recession where people are expected to more work for less money and with fewer resources, most people have probably felt overworked at some point.
For some of us, being overworked, (whether ‘real’ or subjective) results in a mental health crisis. Then we are forced to deal with i.e. take some time off, and come back to more work, which we feel guilty about and work at twice as hard as before. The stigma then means we feel we have to show we are well, and results in the mental health problem being maintained or exacerbated. If you ring up sick with a bout of flu, your employer expects and allows that you stay off work for a week to recover. But this is not the case for mental health.
"The stigma then means we feel we have to show we are well, and results in the mental health problem being maintained or exacerbated. If you ring up sick with a bout of flu, your employer expects and allows that you stay off work for a week to recover. But this is not the case for mental health"
On my return to full time work from a phased return, I was refused time off to attend counselling, as my manager stated it wouldn’t be fair on my colleagues and because I was on a full time contract I had to be there my contracted hours. When I offered to use my accrued leave for the sessions, this was also denied. My employers were asking for evidence that I was well, but would not allow me to engage in therapy to help me stay well. Yet if I did not engage in counselling, it could then be said that I was hindering my own recovery. The words Rock and Hard Place spring to mind.
Luckily many workplaces are starting to tackle this and lots of time and money is being invested in wellbeing days. Interestingly I have found with the Time to Change Wales talks that I give in workplaces, if they are billed as “Stress talks” then five times as many people turn up than if they are billed as “mental health talks”. So it seems that people are comfortable with the notion of stress, whereas mental health still seems to be a taboo subject that employees don’t want to be seen taking an interest in.
Mental health can be a positive in the workplace.
I am more than aware that I was not the model employee at times, but the point was that I was ill. I was never going to get better whilst working in that environment and had to change my career as a result.
Having said that, as negative as some of my experiences have been I wouldn’t change it. It may sound a bit glib, but I have gained valuable experience from my depression. I am a kinder, less judgemental person with empathy that I now use to my advantage. I now work in the mental health sector for an organisation that understands my mental health problems, supports me through crises and allows me to fulfil my potential. I use my experiences to help others with mental illnesses, and gained my most recent role as a direct result of having personal experience of depression. I now have a passion and commitment that I did not have before I was ill. Not to mention the presentation and communication skills I have gained from speaking at Time to Change Wales educator talks.
"I use my experiences to help others with mental illnesses, and gained my most recent role as a direct result of having personal experience of depression"
Every single person who has experienced a mental health problem has gained important positive attributes (I know this can be hard to believe when in the midst of it), whether it be organisational and planning skills from having to juggle health appointments, take medications and recognise crisis warning signs; communication skills from explaining your illness to multiple agencies or engaging in talking therapies; an empathic nature from having known adversity first hand and understanding a subject that many people don’t; and strength from enduring, managing or overcoming some of the cruellest of illnesses. These are transferable skills that can be used in the workplace and are sought after by employers, and we should not allow stigma and discrimination make us think any different.
Find out how to become an educator or get more information on how your organisation can challenge mental health stigma. Watch Mark and Catherine’s film to find out how talking about mental health benefits your workplace.