Should I tell them?
Don’t be ridiculous.
They might be able to help?
It’s more likely that they will dismiss you from your post or at the very least, treat you differently because of your issues. You won’t ever get promoted. Nor will you ever be completely trusted again. You’ll be more of an outsider than you already are.
What about the laws protecting me? Or even the increased awareness of mental health issues in recent years?
Laws are one thing. People and their attitudes towards mental health are something else entirely. Don’t bother. Just keep your head down and hope for the best.
Does any of this exchange sound familiar to you? It does to me. This is a debate I have in my head every day. The more intense my anxiety the louder these voices seem to be. Do I inform my employers of my mental health issues and perhaps achieve some outcome that makes my life a bit easier? Or do I keep quiet, rather than take the risk of being ostracised and possibly discriminated against?
With the stigma against mental illness apparently taking a downward turn in recent years, you would be forgiven for thinking that this wouldn’t be such a contentious issue. Yet according to a recent survey, 92% of Britons felt as though their job prospects would be hindered if they disclosed their mental health issues to their employers.
If we are winning the fight against the stigma against mental illness, then why is this percentage so high?
Perhaps it suggests that despite laws such as Equality Act of 2010 and the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) protecting the rights of people with mental health issues, we still have a way to go in winning over the hearts and minds of the general population. With this in mind, I believe that it is important to understand just to what extent mental illness is still a taboo subject in the workplace.
According to research conducted by Time to Change, ‘nearly one in five people have experienced adverse treatment when asking for support for mental health problems, including forced time off, breaches of confidentiality, removal of important work tasks and discriminatory behaviour towards the individual’. While thankfully this is not such an astronomically high figure, it’s significance lies in the fact that despite supposedly living in a more enlightened age, there are still people out there in positions of authority that possess a warped attitude towards those who struggle with their mental health. Hardly a promising picture.
…yet look at it from their point of view…
However, this is far from meaning that every employer possesses beliefs that are draconian and backwards in nature .Indeed, you could argue that‘while it’s relatively straightforward for a manager to assist a visually impaired employee by providing a braille keyboard […]it’s harder to know exactly what someone with anxiety or depression might need in order to continue to fulfil their role’. This is because mental health issues are, for the most part, invisible – you cannot show an employer the emotional distress you are in the same way you would show them a broken arm or leg.
Based on this example, it is certainly plausible that some cases of alleged discrimination are of an accidental nature, based on misunderstanding and a lack of communication rather than any premeditated attempt to discriminate against particular members of their respective organisation.
Discussing issues such anxiety and depression is often a delicate subject matter for sufferers even on ‘good days’. It can difficult enough broaching the subject with those who know you well, never mind a work colleague who is little more than an acquaintance at best. There is also a fine line between attempting to coax someone into talking about depression and pushing them far enough that they may begin to feel (somewhat ironically) persecuted against.
Yet it is helpful to keep in mind that it is actually within employers best interests to keep their staff happy while at work. They do not have to be an aspiring philanthropist to want to look out for their staff’s welfare, seeing as mental health issues ‘cost employers in the UK £30 billion a year through lost production, recruitment and absence’. Furthermore, by keeping staff happy this is more likely to make a more motivated and thus, more productive workforce. In this light, ignoring or discriminating against those with mental health problems makes no sense from a business perspective.
Lets meet them in the middle
While it is easy to pin the blame on employers for not doing enough to protect their employees mental welfare in the workplace, I believe that responsibility of paving the path forward belongs to both parties, rather than just one or the other.
It is imperative that employers are given as much information as possible in regards to how they can help members of their staff who struggle with mental illness. In fact in some cases this is already happening. Workshops are being offered by several organisations specifically designed to raise awareness of mental health problems in the workplace. More importantly they highlight how employers can provide appropriate support to those significantly affected by their mental condition while at work
To sufferers like myself I say this; we need to be able to differentiate between discrimination and ignorance. Of course, discrimination against those with mental health issues sadly still goes on, yet I feel that the distinction between the two cannot be over emphasised. While it can be undoubtedly frustrating to come across people who lack understanding of mental health in this day and age, it is overall not a failure of the individual . It is an indictment of our society for its failure to highlight just how serious a problem mental illness is. Thus, it is only by reorganising people’s thinking around this subject that we can eliminate the stigma.
There is no denying that talking about mental illness is the most effective step we can take in our attempts to overcome the stigma. But it is not enough to confine these conversations behind closed doors. These conversations need to happen out in the open. Not to the extent where every detail of our pains and woes need to be poured out to people we know only as colleagues. Yet it should be perfectly acceptable for an employee to inform their manager that they suffer with a mental health problem without fear of being ostracised or of facing some thinly veiled form of reprisal. It is only then when this begins to happen that the workplace can truly be a harmonious and productive place to be a part of.
Have you experienced any form of discrimination at work yourself? Or perhaps your workplace has already taken steps to placate those who struggle with their mental health. Please feel free to share your own experiences in the comment section below.
Emotional support helplines:
Samaritans :116 123
Rethink Mental Illness advice line 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday 09:30-16:00; local rate)
Sane Line:0845 767 8000
Mind also has a useful guide of support and services, which can be found by clicking the link right here