What Is Your Job Doing For Your Mental Health?

Photo: Assa Ariyoshi
When she became prime minister last year, Theresa May specifically addressed people who "suffer from mental health problems" and the fact that "there’s not enough help to hand". This was a positive start and suggested she is all too aware of the heavy burden today's mental health services are under.

Then, earlier this month she fleshed out her plans for mental health and her hope to "transform" our attitudes towards it. Much of the focus was on young people's mental health, such as the introduction of mental health first aid training to every secondary school, which was warmly welcomed and, if implemented, could help to avert an even bigger mental health crisis down the line.

But what really piqued our interest were her plans for increased mental health support in the workplace. Under the proposals, employers and organisations will receive training in supporting staff who need time off; and mental health campaigner Lord Stevenson and Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, will conduct a review on improving support in the workplace.

All of which sounds like a huge step in the right direction – and it's certainly good news that May has refocused people’s attention on mental health at a time when British politics is dominated by Brexit. Because, despite increasing numbers of us – and celebrities, such as Lady Gaga and Kendall Jenner – opening up about their mental health problems, there is still a stigma surrounding mental ill-health in the workplace. If celebrities can come clean about their issues to the international press and millions of followers, why can't we open up to our colleagues and bosses?

There's no doubt that mental health is a highly personal and sensitive subject. If you've never had issues with your own, imagine the impact a break-up or death of a loved one might have on your ability to concentrate on even the most menial of tasks; then imagine having to live through similar feelings every day in an office, while trying to stay composed, remain "professional" and not get fired. And if you have had to deal with a mental health problem at work, well, we won't have to remind you just how difficult it can be.

However, many believe May's plans don't go far enough and pointed out that – slight problem – no new money has actually been allocated to implement them, meaning our mental health care system will continue to suffer under the strain. NHS Providers, which represents mental health and other trusts, even anticipated the share of local NHS budgets allocated to mental health to fall next year.

Meanwhile, others highlighted the hypocrisy of a Tory prime minister talking about mental health as if her party had nothing to do with the current crisis. Indeed, mental health professionals, campaigners, charities, politicians and patients themselves have been raising the alarm about the strain on frontline services for years. "When it comes to mental health, the Tories are both the boy who cried wolf and the wolf in sheep’s clothing," wrote Hannah Jane Parkinson for The Guardian.

Under the Tories, mental health trusts' budgets have been slashed, some units have closed while others are threatened with closure, patients are travelling 300 miles for beds, services are failing to meet waiting-list targets, two-thirds of mental health trusts "require improvement" – and that's just the tip of the iceberg. David Cameron promised a "mental health revolution" back in January 2016, yet services have been subjected to crippling cuts even in the last six months. Not only that, mental health professionals have warned that the government's own policies and austerity agenda have had a devastating impact on the mental health of the least well-off in society.

Nevertheless, the prime minister's latest proposals have been welcomed by many, including Mind. "We have long been calling for more personalised, tailored support, that takes into account an individual's ambitions, skills, and helps them overcome the barriers they face in getting and staying in work," Emma Mamo, the charity's head of workplace wellbeing, told Refinery29.
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Photo: Assa Ariyoshi
A survey by Mind in 2014 found that over half of workers (56%) find work very or fairly stressful, and that mental health is still a taboo in the workplace. Worryingly, 30% of those surveyed said they wouldn’t be able to confide in their line manager if they were stressed, and of the 14% who had a diagnosed mental health problem, fewer than half (45%) had told their employer. What's more, 95% of those who had taken time off sick with stress weren't honest with their employer about the reason why – instead citing reasons such as an upset stomach or headache.

Clearly, something needs to be done about the culture of shame surrounding mental health in the office. The prime minister herself recently pointed out that wearing a plaster cast in the office would attract thoughtful inquires from colleagues, while “if you have a mental health problem, people are more likely to try to avoid you”.

Mind, like many other campaigners, believes that the onus is on the employer. "Employers have a responsibility to promote workplace wellbeing and help prevent poor mental health, and it’s in their interests to take workplace wellbeing seriously, as those that do typically have more engaged, productive and loyal employees," Mamo told us. She also welcomed the appointment of Mind’s chief executive Paul Farmer to co-chair the employment review. "This will give us the opportunity to ensure the voices and views of people with mental health problems are heard."

And it really is important that we take their perspectives into account, because they know how beneficial it can be to open up about the problems plaguing them, or simply taking time off for some much-needed space and self-care.

Karen, 29, an administrator for a mental health charity, has lived with depression for 11 years and has experienced symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress. She has taken 36 days off in the last 12 months because of a traumatic experience at the beginning of last year and perhaps unsurprisingly, given the remit of her employer, her colleagues were supportive. The biggest obstacle were her own feelings of "awkwardness" and sense of shame "about not being able to live up to my own high standards" or impress colleagues.
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Talking openly about mental health should be part of the workplace culture

"Taking time off has been restorative and transformative," she told Refinery29. As well as receiving treatment through the NHS and group therapy at a local voluntary organisation, she said she "practised yoga, wrote poems, researched ways of healing from trauma, explored green spaces and left the country for a few days for a change of environment and pace".

Karen said: "Employers need to realise that their employees are human beings and that no one is immune from dealing with mental health problems. Additionally, worrying that your colleagues will think less of you for having mental health problems or that you'll lose your job can make an already challenging problem even worse. Talking openly about mental health should be part of the workplace culture."

Emily*, a 25-year-old journalist, has dealt with intrusive-thought OCD (recurring violent thoughts), anxiety and panic attacks. She has taken two weeks off work to deal with her issues in the past, during which time she took the high dosage of drugs she needed, which would have hampered her ability to work, exercise and go to intensive therapy.

"I've found it very awkward when I'm at work and something happens, like a panic attack, because I look semi-fine from the outside. But when it happens to me I can't be with anyone as it makes me feel worse and often I need to get to the GP for an emergency appointment to get propranolol or valium as soon as possible," she told Refinery29.

"The first time I had intrusive-thought OCD it was so bad that I couldn't go in [to work] because I couldn't use my brain. I had a week off with a doctor's note, and my boss was very kind and understanding, if a little taken aback, when I called him and tried to explain what was wrong. I was in a very bad place and couldn't communicate very clearly. He just said do what you need to do and don't worry about work."

When the intrusive thoughts first started, though, Emily said she couldn't face telling anyone in the office. "I'd go around the corner and cry or have panic attacks in the bathroom." But after confiding in her boss, opening up about her problems began to feel less daunting. "I found it a lot easier to communicate going forwards and to my next boss," she said.

Sadly, not every boss is as supportive or understanding as Karen's and Emily's were, and talking about personal experiences of mental ill-health is far from normalised in the workplace. People continue to be shunned, bullied and discriminated against – overlooked, passed over for promotions – because of their mental health. 56% of employers say they wouldn't employ someone with depression if they knew about it, according to a survey by Time To Change. Meanwhile, one-third of people with mental health problems in England report being dismissed or forced to resign and two-fifths believe their history of psychiatric treatment resulted in them being denied a job.

Sarah Mitchell, a 30-year-old with bipolar disorder, recently told Vice about the lack of support and downright carelessness she faced from colleagues when she had a breakdown. "They said: 'Can you just work from home on this day? Can you come in for a half day?' It just wasn't conducive to getting better at all. When I returned to work, people were talking behind my back, openly emailing about me... people who I thought were friends there shunned me, basically, and that made me more ill."
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It is illegal for employers to discriminate against people with mental health problems

If your boss is failing in their duty to support you, you can add the Equality Act 2010 to your arsenal. This makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against people with mental health problems provided the condition has affected your normal day-to-day activities for at least 12 months, and they must also make "reasonable adjustments" to work practices. However, if you do believe you're being treated unfairly, it might not be easy to make a case against your employer because of the specifics of your situation. Your condition may have been serious, but if it didn't last the whole year you may not have legal protection, for example. You would have to contact an employment tribunal, which can be both time-consuming and expensive.

Thankfully, though, there is such a thing as a compassionate boss who will support you all the way if you need to take time off to focus on your mental health. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former spin doctor and now an advocate for Time to Change, recently told Vice about his experience of working through bouts of depression. “When I get very bad depression… I don’t feel right, but I feel I can just about get through and do what I need to do. But I could only do it because I had a very supportive boss and a very supportive team."

In an ideal world, all bosses would be like Molly*, a director at a women’s media company who manages 20 staff and has had three employees ask to take time off – or "mental rest", as she calls it – during the nine years she has worked at senior management level.

"I have close relationships with my direct reports so am usually aware that something's happening before they ask for time off, so, more often than not, I'll suggest it before they ask," she told Refinery29, adding that she has always responded to their requests "with encouragement".

"Hire people you trust, and then trust them, listen to them, support them, encourage them to be sensible about their mental health. Take it seriously, and ensure they take it seriously too, because people will often just say 'It's fine, I'm fine, I'll be fine,' when they aren't, and sometimes that person needs their employer to take the lead and actively suggest they take time off, and to let them know that that's ok if they feel too overwhelmed to say it."

Molly believes it's her responsibility as a manager to support her staff. "It's also my responsibility to make sure they are achieving their potential, and no one can achieve their potential when they are suffering from a mental health-related illness."

"I have a huge amount of respect for people who tell me they're off because they feel too stressed or they feel upset or they feel overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed. The generic 'I've got a tummy bug' excuse isn't necessary. When staff say the real reasons, it builds a stronger bond, I understand them more, and will make every effort to help them more in the long term with their workload, and in any other way I can."

The moral of the story? While it may feel like a risk, and your boss might be the last person to whom you want to disclose your most personal problems, there's a good chance you'll benefit in the long run. As Molly said, making it a priority to look after yourself provides a springboard from which to achieve amazing things.
How to ask your boss for mental rest

• Know your limits. "If you think you need time off, you're probably right. I'd recommend employees seek medical advice from a professional as well as talking to their employers," Molly said.

• Be honest. "Just because others don't see it, it doesn't mean your problems don't exist. It's just as valid as other types of illness if it's stopping you from doing your job. If needs be, get a note from a GP or therapist," suggested Emily.

• Don't feel guilt or shame. "Everyone has different circumstances, some of which make taking time off difficult. A lot of people are put at a massive disadvantage in their workplaces for [taking time off]. Whatever happens though, don’t feel guilty and realise that you're doing what is best for you at this moment," said Karen. "If the time is used productively to explore how to make positive changes in your life and outlook, you can find a way to weather any storms that may come your way."
*Names have been changed

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