Mental illness discrimination in the workplace: Should I stay or should I go?

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In a previous entry, I proposed what an ideal workplace would look like in regards to how it should treat employees with mental health issues. It would be somewhere where employers would be adequately trained in how to broach the subject of mental health with their workers. Employees would be no more hesitant to ask for help and/or understanding than if they were in some way physically incapacitated.  It would be a hive of productivity and amiability, where mental health problems were given the same level of seriousness that physical injury is attributed with.

However, it would be foolish to deny that this is nothing but a pipe dream for many of you out there. And the fact that 95% of people who struggle with mental illness call in sick to work gave a different reason for their absence is all too telling. Despite many wonderful peoples best efforts, it is futile to deny that the stigma surrounding mental illness in the workplace is well and truly alive.

Consequently there comes a point where it must be acknowledged that some workplaces out there are not going to change their prejudiced practices any time soon. So in light of that fact, you may very well be asking yourself that all important question:

Should I stay or should I go?

Here are just some of the reasons you may want to consider before making the big leap of faith however…

After working in a job for a certain amount of time, you should ideally be able to gauge some information on where your work colleagues and employer(s) stand on mental health issues. Have they discriminated against you, whether directly or indirectly? If so can you deduct whether this was intentional victimisation or the result of ignorance? How exactly did they do this? Has it been straight out bullying? Or have you found yourself being slowly marginalised over a period of time? In short there are a lot of questions you need to ask before you take any drastic action and even then the answer is far from clear cut.

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Direct discrimination

Is your workload being slowly diminished? Have you been demoted? Do you feel as though your colleagues are exhibiting bullying behaviour towards you in any way? Take a look at Jason’s  story on the Time to Change website.While it is the sole experience of one man, a lot of what he says may resonate with you. Here is an excerpt of the article that is particularly relevant to the topic at hand:

‘my workload was gradually diminished, my confidence systematically undermined, unfounded accusations made and at my annual appraisal I was told that I was no longer trusted […] questions were asked about my mental stability’

Does any of this ring true for you? Keep in mind that this is an extreme example of direct discrimination. The term can cover anything from malicious gossip circulating around about you to exclusion from work organised social events. Not every form of discrimination is as overt and intimidating as it is in Jason’s story – it can sometimes be as subtle as a change in language or voice tone used by colleagues when addressing you, but its effect is no less humiliating.

Your field of work

Many jobs require many different expectations of their employees. The unfortunate reality is that a lot of these positions are extroverted focused. We live in a world that values extroverts over introverts, and while this is undoubtedly unfair, this does not mean that there is not a job out there that can play to your strengths, or even help to push your boundaries.

For instance, by working as a teaching assistant, I have faced many challenges in regards to my job. It can be a very fast paced environment where you must be aware of what is happening around you at all times. This usually means that by the end of the day I am drained on both a mental and physical level. Yet, along with frequent bouts of meditation, it’s enabled me handle stress in a more constructive way and improve my ability to communicate in a clear and calm manner.

However, there is a difference between pushing your boundaries and trying to frog leap over them. The former holds the potential for self improvement while the latter is a major risk that could leave you in a worst place than when you started. Only you know of your capability to carry out what is being asked of you.

It should also be noted that, according to a recent study, for people looking for work or in situations involving the legal system, banking or insurance, discrimination was more common. This suggests that some workplaces are more prone to discriminatory behaviour than others. Whether that is because the nature of the work itself or the kind of people these kind of jobs attract.

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Indirect discrimination

Something I put emphasis on in my previous entry on this subject was the importance in distinguishing between ignorance and prejudice. While my views on this matter have not changed, there is undoubtedly a collateral fallout of dealing with any kind of discrimination, whether it is intended or otherwise.

Mind, the mental health charity, defines indirect discrimination as a person/organisation that has practices  which ‘seem to treat everyone in an equal, non-discriminatory way’ yet under closer surveillance, these practices ‘put you and others with your disability at a disadvantage compared with those who do not have your disability’.

So for instance, you (along with the rest of your work colleagues) could be asked to give a public presentation to a large audience. This situation is a common fear for many anxiety sufferers – myself included. So to be asked to do something that you are disadvantaged in could come under the term ‘indirect discrimination’. Though it is also worth noting that you may be able to gain some leeway with this kind of issue under the terms of ‘reasonable adjustments’ set out by the 2010 Equality Act. Read more about that here.

Mental well being training programmes

Sometimes your work colleagues can be the some of the most kind and gracious people you know, yet their knowledge about mental illness is, lets say, limited at best. Here is where mental health training comes in. It is something that helps not only raise awareness but reduces the chances of an employees mental welfare deteriorating because of ignorance in their respective workplace. This is something that Mind offers to organisations around the country. According to its website it provides ‘a cost-effective way to promote mental wellbeing in your organisation and at home’.

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Below is a useful guide from this particular article as to how employers can approach their workers in a more sensitive manner. The next time you engage with your employer and/or work colleagues, take note of the way in which they address you. You might find that their attitude towards your illness is not as understanding as it should or could be:

Don’t say: You’re all over the place at the moment, what’s up?

Do say: I’m concerned that you appear to be under some pressure. Can we talk about it?

Don’t say: You’re letting the team down.
Do say: One of your colleagues has told me in confidence that she is worried about you.

Don’t say: I hope you’re not going to end up a nutcase!
Do say: Have you mentioned this to your GP? I will send you some information about the organisation’s counselling service in case this is something that you might find helpful.

Don’t say: Pull yourself together and get on with it.
Do say: What else do you think we could do to improve things for you?

You

If you have/are being discriminated against because of your mental illness, then it is fully possible (or likely) that such behaviour could be aggravating your problems. While it is a risky move to up it all and leave a place of employment( especially if you suffer with an anxiety disorder) you need to ask yourself if it is worth holding onto a job that is having such a detrimental effect on your welfare. The authors of a recent study on the subject concluded that someone’s negative reaction to a fellow employee’s mental health issues threatened ‘not only their professional confidence but their sense of worthwhileness as a person as well’ -this is a statement that is as unsurprising as it is saddening.

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What are your thoughts on this subject? Have you ever had to leave a job because of discriminatory behaviour aimed towards you? If so, how would you advise other people to deal with this issue? Or perhaps you’re on the verge of quitting a job because of the reasons highlighted. Either way, I would be interested to know when exactly do you, as an individual, draw the line when it comes to discrimination in the work environment.

9 thoughts on “Mental illness discrimination in the workplace: Should I stay or should I go?

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I am in the process of considering my return to work as a social worker after 7 weeks off due to stress and anxiety. I had been telling my employer that I was having panic attacks for 3-4 months and no allowances were made, in fact they continued to give me more and more work. Now they are ignoring my emails, and questioning my capability for the role despite my appraisal saying I was capable of management positions. The indirect discrimination and lack of empathy has pushed me between anger and low mood in a constant cycle and has left a bitter taste in my mouth, resulting in me not to work there anymore. Now I am feeling more on top of my stress levels and anxiety/panic I feel like returning to the work environment is possible. I’m not sure how I will rid myself of the feeling that whilst I have been vulnerable as a result of being overworked and under supported, I have been left out in the cold on my own.

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    1. Hi Natalie. Thanks so much for sharing your story, as sad as it is to read. It is very frustrating how your employer’s ignorance is aggravating your symptoms. By the sounds of it you did the right thing to walk away.

      I really hope you’re in a better place right now. You did not deserve to be treated in such an abrasive way. Also thanks so much for reblogging this entry -it really means a lot that people think my writing is worthy of honour! 🙂

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  2. Thank you for this resource. What happened in my case I truly believe was ignorance, especially because I wasn’t owning my own depression. I stigmatized the very word and had a hard time accepting it. But the breaking point in the job that I left for mental health reasons was when I believed a conversation that needed to happen would be met with hostility bases on history with the boss in our prior conversations. I emailed and told her I did not feel respected, valued, or trusted and that it was time for me to move on. It’s been three years and I couldn’t believe it but their partner company reached out to me based on the recommendation of my former boss. I’m working within proximity of that environment now, and I will say, I’m a little on edge about it, but am talking myself into sticking it out at least as a means to an end for now.

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  3. Hi nuckleheadsteph. I’m happy to hear that you found this useful. I can completely understand what you mean. Accepting that you are mentally ill is a big step, but in the end it is preferable over self denial. Then there comes the even bigger obstacle of telling other people!

    I wouldn’t be hard on your decision to leave that company at the time. It’s entirely understandable to believe that people won’t be accepting of your mental health issues. Though it is nice to read that your former boss can see your strength as an employee and go as far as to recommend you to their partner company. It’s these kind of stories that I like reading and it demonstrates that in some workplaces at least, the stigma is being eliminated.

    I wish you luck with the work and thanks for sharing your account 🙂

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  4. Insightful. Many workplace environments can be very hypocritical when it comes to employee mental health. Training one day on recognizing mental health issues and discrimination the next. It’s still a stigma to be overcome.

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  5. My first workplace, which is also the job that I’ve held for the longest amount of time (4 years) was fully aware of my mental illness and did make some allowances for it, which other employees found unfair, though I’m not sure why. My employer at the time was as supportive as they could be in the circumstances. However when I left this job and applied for another one, I was discriminated against in a big way and was not given the job simply because I had a mental illness. My previous experience and qualifications seemed to mean nothing to them. I wrote a blog post about it a few weeks ago. It can be read here: https://thenutfactory.wordpress.com/2016/08/29/equal-opportunities/

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  6. Thank you! There is a lot of discrimination in the workforce of the mentally ill, both in hiring and on the job. It truly is tragic. We can do as much as others can do. Sometimes we might just need an accommodation or two.

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