As part of the radio show I am volunteering on, I have been carrying out interviews with members of staff and volunteers from charities. As a result of these, I have been pondering issues around mental health and thought I would explore some concepts further on my blog. One issue that came up from a recent interview was about speaking up about mental health issues in the workplace.
In the interview I was told that at a recent Bi-polar conference, one person in attendance stood up and asked if they should admit to having a mental health issue at work or whether they should keep quiet for fear of losing their job. When I heard this, I could not understand how this is allowed to continue. How can people be afraid to say they suffer from a mental health issue at work because they are scared of losing their jobs? Surely this is wrong on so many levels?
I decided to do some research and look into the issue. What I found did surprise me. According to recent research from Mind, 1 in 5 people that admit to suffering a mental health issue at work either lose their jobs or are forced out in other ways. Take that in for a moment. 1 in 5. I think one of the reasons I find this statistic so odd is that I spent ten years working in a care setting, so I am aware of equality and discrimination legislature. Surely this comes under the heading of discrimination? It does. Depression for instance is considered a disability, so it would be discrimination to fire someone for having depression. I believe the problem would be proving that a person was fired for depression and not for other reasons, whether those reasons are real or not.
Another reason I found this hard to take in was that a charity I worked for was nothing but supportive of me during time off from work for depression and my return to work after it. This gave me pause to think as it is sometimes easy to only focus on the bad and not realise the good that occurs. So, I think it is only fair to mention that while some companies lack in areas of supporting mental health, some do a very good job and deserve the credit.
However, it seems that some companies actually nurture a negative attitude to mental health and discourage people from talking about it and the threat of losing a job due to a mental health issue is not implied. The reasons that having a mental health issue is viewed negatively are too varied and vast to include in this post and it might be something I look at in detail later, but for now, let me say that I think this is wrong. Not exactly a grand surprise, but there we are. I will focus on this from a business point of view to keep it in context.
In terms of money, the WHO suggests that £26 billion is lost to the economy each year as a result of absence from work due to mental health issues or people who, and I think this is an interesting phrase, are ‘sickness present’, in that they are at work but not performing to their full potential. £26 billion is no small sum and it makes sense to me that it is in a companies interest to improve the ways it supports people with mental health issues in terms of reducing the overall cost it involves.
It also makes me think of the responsibility employers have in terms of what causes the mental health issues in the first place. Now, I am not laying this solely at the door of businesses and I fully acknowledge that the reasons for mental health issues are wide ranging. Yet we know that stress is a key contributor to mental health issues and that work can be a huge source of stress to many people. It seems fair to me to say that work can be a factor in people developing mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, so it makes me wonder if there is a moral responsibility from companies to support members of staff that have potentially developed mental health issues as a result of their work.
In terms of fairness, I do wonder about how much people with mental health issues help the companies in return to manage their own mental health issues? I accept that it is not always easy to manage a condition such as depression but in order to be balanced, I feel the need to admit that I did not take care of myself as well as I should have. Long periods of denial that I even had an issue, not wanting to see a therapist, stopping anti-depressants mid-course etc etc etc. I realise now that this was not in my best interests, but that is the kicker isn’t it? When you are depressed, it is so much harder to do the things that are good for you. Or I found this to be the case for myself.
This is where I feel I am heading into tricky terrain. I get an alarm bell in my head that makes me think that I am getting close to saying something negative about people with mental health issues and I should not do that. As someone who has suffered from depression, I feel scared about saying anything negative about others who have mental health issues. Then I wonder if I am actually being negative or do I simply feel that way? Or is it actually fair to say that people who are being paid to do a job have a responsibility to take all appropriate steps to manage their issues?
As I say, tricky terrain. There seems to me to be a cycle that looks hard to break. A member of staff is scared to speak up about their mental health issue as they fear losing their job. While I see that this is an understandable fear it does make me think how can a company support a member of staff with their mental health issue if the person does not tell the company in the first place? Or what if the person suffers in silence for too long and the effects are worse than they could have been if dealt with earlier?
Then it comes back to the understandable fear of losing a job due to speaking up as this can happen in reality. I do not like to think it does, but that does not change the reality of it. I have also read several accounts of people simply not realising they are heading towards to a mental health issue until they simply cannot go on anymore. I do not see this as the person’s fault but I do have sympathy for an employer as it seems a difficult situation to resolve or support with as the person they could be supporting may not know they need it in the first place.
I think this is the hardest area to resolve as I am not sure where to start untangling the thread. People are scared to speak up. I get that. I have done that. Yet, in the long run, how is this going to change otherwise? The issue of mental health is not going anywhere and nor should it. The next step seems to be difficult. If awareness of mental health issues is to be raised then people need to speak up yet people are scared to speak up for fear of the consequences whether they are real or imagined. I am not sure how this cycle is going to change.
Then I remember that I am living in a world that is constantly changing and that while the situation is as it is now, it might not be the same in a year’s time. Change can happen fast but in the present moment, it might not seem like it is happening fast enough and that may be the case. Yet, if we looked back in a year’s time to now, we might see that the situation is getting better.
In conclusion I think that some companies need to be challenged if they are creating a negative attitude to mental health issues. It is just plain wrong. I also believe that more credit needs to be given to companies that already do good work to support their staff or moving towards improving. As difficult and painful as it is, I consider it a very important step for people to speak up. I simply cannot see another solution in the long run.
The reason I say this is that I think the way this situation can improve is by the two sides to meet in the middle, or at least start to move in that direction. A company should support the member of staff, but they can only do that if the member of staff tells them. The more people speak up the more people will feel comfortable speaking up. I know this is a simplification, but I cannot see how else this can be overcome.
Of course, if you have any thoughts or ideas, I would love to hear them.