I'm an employee with a mental health condition. Here's what I want you to know

I'm an employee with a mental health condition. Here's what I want you to know
Anna BlackmooreAnna Blackmoore

Posted: Thu 4th Apr 2019

Anna Blackmoore writes this for the latest post from Enterprise Nation's Business Health Hub.

One in four people UK[1] live with mental health problems, and I'm one of them.

And although the way we think and talk about mental health has improved a lot since my borderline personality disorder (BPD) diagnosis in 2012, we're still a long way from off from where we could be.

I'm not alone. Around 16m people in the UK are living with a diagnosed mental health disorder, and this number only looks set to rise.

For someone with a mental health condition like borderline personality disorder, an average day can be intense and unpredictable.

Extreme mood swings, trust issues, and a distorted self-image can turn straightforward activities into a minefield of anxiety and panic.

Unchecked, these symptoms can escalate into a crisis, leading to panic attacks, self-harm or even suicidal thoughts. Sometimes, it takes all my strength just to get through the day.

A balancing act

It's normal to find work stressful from time to time, but for someone with a mental health condition, it can be an emotional warzone.

Learning to control my day-to-day symptoms has been a lifelong process, but as an employee in a professional environment, it's a whole new challenge. I've managed to work through several crises crying quietly in the bathroom and subdued panic attacks by listening to relaxing music at my desk, but this can leave little energy for focused work and deadlines.

People with mental health issues could really benefit from some extra help. But despite the fact that 15%[2] of full-time work employees have mental health issues, fewer than half of employers have policies or systems in place to support them.[3]

What's more, in 2017, the TUC reported that just one in four (26.2%) people with a long term mental illness are in work.[4] And of those, 300,000 a year will lose their job.[5]

The stigma of speaking up

"What will they think of me? What if they don't believe me? How will this affect my job? And why can't I pull myself together, just like everyone else?"

When my mental health overwhelms me at work, I face two options: fabricate a medical emergency, or attempt to tough it out.

But what about a third option: being honest? After all, I wouldn't hesitate to speak up if I had food poisoning, or even just a head cold. So why cover up for my chronic, sometimes devastating mental health issues?

Unfortunately, like nine out of 10 people with a mental health condition, I'm aware of the negative stigma attached to it.[6] I'm plagued with anxiety that if my boss and colleagues found out, they'd think I'm unreliable, weak or worse - "crazy".

In Thriving at Work, an independent review of mental health in the workplace, Mind's Emma Mamo sums it up: "Mental health is still the elephant in the room in most workplaces. Employees are reluctant to raise the subject for fear of discrimination, while managers often shy away from the subject for fear of making matters worse or provoking legal consequences."

Not only is there the stigma to contend with, but if your bravery backfires and your employer doesn't take it well, the damage to your career - and your emotional wellbeing - can be catastrophic.

Isobel, 29, was working for a charity when she had to take a month off, during which time she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But instead of being shown compassion upon returning, her employers singled her out in front of her team, and forced her into a new, strict working schedule with no room for flexibility - the opposite of what she should have been given.

"It took all my power away. I felt like my mental illness was being used to make me seem incompetent at my job. I ended up making mistakes, which were then used as a reason to fire me. I had to take a year off to recover from the damage it did to my confidence."

With all this in mind, it's no surprise that just 11% of people with mental health issues have spoken to their manager about it.[7]

Hope on the horizon

There are signs that stories like Isobel's could become rarer in the future.

Time to Change, a charity focused on reducing mental health-related stigma and discrimination, says that since 2008 around 4.1m people in the UK are now thinking more positively about mental health, and the number of people with mental illness experiencing discrimination has dropped by a third.[8]

Thanks to initiatives like Time to Change, World Mental Health Day and more, increasingly sensitive depictions of mental health in TV and film, employers are waking up to the needs of their staff.

"There's a lot more visibility and understanding around mental health problems in the public than some years ago," says Andy, an NHS mental health worker who provides support to people with eating disorders.

"But we still have a long way to go. We need more open forums at work, where time and space are set aside for promoting wellbeing. And I'd like to see people's workplaces taking some responsibility for reminding employees that they are so much more than the work they can do.

"Creating an atmosphere where frank discussion is possible isn't only a matter of someone's wellbeing but also one of the quality of the work that they can then provide," he adds.

Nick, a 33-year-old IT worker with dysthymia and anxiety, felt relieved that his employer understood his needs, and was offered flexible working hours and extended deadlines.

"When I talked to my boss, he reassured me that I wasn't the first person to come forward with mental health issues. I'd been so worried, but in the end it wasn't such a big deal. But I don't know if it would have been the same in the past. People are much better informed these days."

So who knows? Someday, maybe everyone struggling with their mental health will feel comfortable enough to call that one-on-one with their line manager.

Until then, the best thing employers can do is read up on the best ways to support your employees, and don't be afraid to ask.


[2] Thriving at work: The Stevenson//Farmer review of mental health and employers
[3] Thriving at work: The Stevenson//Farmer review of mental health and employers
[6] (p6)
[7] Thriving at work: The Stevenson//Farmer review of mental health and employers (p29)

Get more tips for helping employees remain healthy and stress-free in the Business Health Hub.

Anna BlackmooreAnna Blackmoore

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