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How to Tackle Mental Health in the Workplace

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I was once dismissed from a job on mental health grounds, then lost another potential job based on a reference from that employer. Although this is discrimination, various alternative reasons for dismissal can be given in such cases, for example: sickness absence, underperformance or misconduct.

Since at the time, I was working in a caring profession, I thought that my employer would be understanding. Unfortunately this was not the case.

By opening up about mental health issues at work, employees often face demotion, dismissal or disciplinary action. As a result, around 3 out of 4 workers with a mental health issue chose not to involve anyone at work. 

Many people do not realise that disclosure of health problems and disabilities is not required at interview – even if asked outright. If the applicant has voluntarily disclosed their mental health issue at interview, any number of reasons can be given for rejection. It would therefore be good practice for preferred candidates to disclose illness or disability after they are offered a position.

Mental health disclosure regularly has strong adverse effects on people’s job prospects. In my case, an unsatisfactory reference cost me a position I had achieved on my own merit, following successful interview. If you can’t use your most recent employer as a referee, this raises concerns for prospective employers.

Why, when the legislation is on the side of those of us with mental health problems, do we still struggle with this? The word ‘discrimination’ has connotations of mistreatment and is often said with a degree of belligerence and indignation. Yet, with mental health, discrimination is still widely accepted as the norm. This is often referred to as mental health ‘stigma’.

Stigma in the workplace may be as a result of conscious or unconscious prejudice. It can stem from misinformation, stereotyping or a lack of information. Employers perceive that those of us with mental health issues are a ‘risk’ – less reliable, less able to perform, and generally ‘less’ able than our mentally well counterparts. I would like to suggest that, for example, we are more able to empathise with the public and recognise distress in others.

Employment is often rehabilitative for those recovering from mental illness. The media regularly claim that people with mental health issues don’t work or don’t want to work. Statistically, 43% of people with mental health problems are in employment, compared to 74% of the general population but many people have transient mental ill health.

It can be easy to forget that over and above the employment-related consequences caused by poor mental well-being, individuals also have the actual mental health problems to deal with. This could mean that every task becomes a struggle, for example, or it could be complex social anxiety. No two people have the same experience.

Less than 40% of employers hire someone with a mental health issue within 12 months of the initial illness , yet 62% would hire someone with a physical health issue. Mental illness can be a result of physical illness or vice versa. The link between the two is not often spoken about. 

Around £34.9 billion per year is lost as a result of poor workplace mental health. his means that mental health problems cost £1,300 for every employee in the UK economy. The cost is a direct result of sickness absence, presenteeism and staff turnover.

Evidence from the Mental Health Foundation suggests that 12.7% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions. Absence related to a disability should not be counted as sickness absence under the terms of the Equality Act 2010, but it often still is. In my case, I was given a reference stating I had worked a period of ‘a few days’ across several months of employment.

More full-time working women report poor mental well-being than full-time working men. The higher the socio-economic class of a person, generally the less likely they are to have a mental health problem. While employment is good for mental health overall, work that is low paid, insecure or poses risks to a person’s health has a negative impact

When I signed on at my local job centre a while ago, a few weeks into my claim I missed an appointment. When my adviser found out that this was due to depression, she said: ‘This rings alarm bells for me.

You do realise you will have to attend regular appointments, don’t you?’ I was taken aback but said something vaguely acquiescent to the adviser and then ranted about it later to my partner. I believe there are two issues here: the prejudice of the adviser and my lack of confidence to do anything about it.

Empowering people with lived mental health experience to challenge misconceptions about mental well-being is of paramount importance. Even as an active advocate for mental health on social media, I self-stigmatise by being reluctant to tell my story.

With the cost of mental ill health being so high, some employers have set a positive example for change. For example, it is not uncommon to see ‘mental health champions’ being appointed in larger organisations.

Organisations of all sizes are legally bound to make reasonable adjustments – altering working conditions for employees with mental health issues. However, less than a quarter of managers have been trained in mental health. Going forward, it would be important to educate all front line managers.

The health and safety of employees should not be considered purely on a physical level. Implementing a national strategy of workplace specific mental health first aid training has been suggested. Workplace mental health policies are a good idea in theory, but like many policies, they can easily be forgotten. Various third sector organisations have produced helpful guides for employers, like this one from the Mental Health Foundation. 

All things considered, tackling stigma in society (and the workplace) would make a huge impact. In terms of employment, much can (and should) be done, but the greatest change will come from talking more about mental health.


Image credit: Freepik

Dawn Getliffe is a former medical student from the University of Dundee. Now studying for a BSc at the Open University, her main area of interest and research is mental health. 

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