Feeling like your dignity is at stake is all too easy when you are dealing with a mental health condition in the workplace. It shouldn’t be that way, and there are things that should be done to make work more mentally friendly. It is difficult to say what should be the rule because when it comes to mental health there are no rules. What works for one person might be the complete opposite of what works for someone else. We talk about person centred care, but we need to treat workers in a similar way. Not like when you get those “learning styles” questionnaires at the start of a new job then are expected to learn the same as everyone else whether you are a activist, reflector, theorist or pragmatist. We are often expected to fit a mould, which is not very practical.
HR policies need to take mental health into consideration, as at times they can cause unnecessary stress. First thing that comes to mind is sick leave, and how someone with a disability is disadvantaged by policies that are inflexible. For me, hitting “trigger points” due to anxiety meant that if I was unwell with any other problem then I felt like I had to come to work regardless of how sick I felt. There was no leeway in the policies, no accounting for the fact that I was already at a disadvantage. Luckily I’ve managed to dodge several viruses that my colleagues have succumbed to in the past few years. I also had a good line manager when I was unwell who helped me with this the best she could, but the worry that I could lose my job was always there regardless. Employers should consider looking at disability leave policies to make sure that disabled people are being treated with dignity and kindness. It isn’t about giving us an advantage, its about accounting for the disadvantages we already face.
That takes me on to my biggest pet peeve about HR policies. Phoning in sick. Many policies state that YOU must physically phone in sick if you are taking a day off. That is all well and good if you’re not having a meltdown! Saying that, I’m sure if you had the cold and lost your voice it would be deemed suitable to have someone else call on your behalf. Sadly, for mental health episodes there is often no wiggle room; you are expected to call the office in a state, not knowing who will pick up the phone. It is embarrassing. I have frequently flouted the rule with various employers, figuring I would deal with the consequences later. When you are in survival mode you don’t have the emotional energy to expend on discussing it with your employer who may or may not be understanding. With anxiety it feels like you have to explain yourself, when sometimes there is no explanation. In contrast to that, I put my back out this week and calling in sick was like a dream. Night and day difference. I didn’t feel guilty about it and I didn’t feel like I could lose my job somewhere down the line because of it.
So that’s two things that I think employers can do, but what can people like me do? I like wellness plans in work because it encourages you to identify ways to stay well and deal with triggers. Having something written down to remind yourself, or others can be really useful. Thinking about triggers to being unwell and coping with absence is good preparation for if things do go wrong. Reflecting on how other people have helped or hindered your recovery is important too. In a lot of cases people aren’t deliberately trying to make you feel uncomfortable, they just don’t know any better. Showing others how they can help is good in the long run, but of course the other person still has to be willing to take what you say on board.
Reasonable adjustments are interesting with mental health, because in some ways I would like to use them to minimise any pressure. Like, using email rather than phone when possible and only meeting in smaller groups. At the same time, I understand that pushing myself and challenging my social anxiety could make me better eventually. Sometimes dealing with the every day stuff is enough pressure without trying to get out of your comfort zone. Again, going at my own pace and being allowed to go at my own pace is what works for me.
Having someone to vent to and run your worries by is also a relief. In my line of work people are generally clued up about the whole thing, but when starting my internship I figured it would be nice to have someone impartial to talk to. Access to Work has provided me with a Vocational Rehabilitation Consultant from Remploy. He is there if I have any worries, and so far I haven’t needed to contact him. Knowing that I can go to someone outside of work personally makes me feel more equal with my colleagues. I can just be me, rather than “anxiety me”. I wish I knew about the service in a previous job that I ended up leaving due to my anxiety. Maybe things would have been different.
We can all do things to help promote mental health at work. Being aware is the main thing, but having a culture where mental health issues are not seen as a weakness or something scary would be nice! I recently did a module at uni on worker wellbeing, and my project focused on workplace peer support. There’s something about talking to someone who has had a similar experience that makes you feel like you’re not alone. I’ll talk about that a bit more next week on my blog for the first ever Global Peer Supporter Recognition Day on the 15th of October. Until then, thanks for reading!