Ask many people with mental illness, how’s the workplace? Many will describe the frustrations of trying to work alongside people who either do not know or do not understand the struggles they are going through, the high rates of unemployment, underemployment and patchy employment relating to mental health.
We hear how many working days are lost to mental health, we know this, but as a society we do nothing to improve the resources for those experiencing mental health challenges. Again, for those who have not experienced any mental health issues, they may wonder, what could be so bad as to take people out of the work place?
Where to start? Panic attacks can make going to work feel like a torture. Anxiety can cause reduced career opportunities because of fear, phobias including agrophobia may make it hard to actually venture beyond the house to a place of work, depression may keep a sufferer in bed on days when they are most needed at the office, bipolar can cause a worker to shift from highly productive to shut down over night. Without a full understanding of the complexities of mental disease, your boss is likely as not, ill equipped to handle these things and that is why so many people with mental illness struggle in the work place.
But what are we doing about it?
In recent years, bullying in the workplace has been a topic of discussion and highlights that we have not progressed as far from the playground as we may think. Typically people with mental illnesses are far more likely to be the object of bullying both in the school yard and work place. We hear about work place violence and assume some ‘crazy person’ came and gunned down some innocents, and whilst there is no justification for work place violence, is there any excuse for work place bullying?
It is worth considering this if you work with someone who is being bullied. Stand up for them, let someone know it’s happening, don’t let those tensions get out of hand, and then wonder what you could have done about it after it’s too late and that person commits suicide or brings a gun to work. Equally, if someone is mentally ill and they’re making it hard in the work place let your boss know, so that they (whose job it is) can do their best to resolve the issue.
Let’s look at an example;
Jemima is a closeted lesbian who suffers from anxiety. Her work colleague grows suspicious of her ‘life style’ and watches her type in her password, when Jemima is out at lunch, her work colleague ‘hacks’ her email account bringing up private emails of Jemima’s to her girlfriend. The work colleague prints them out and everyone in the office giggles over their content, unbeknown to Jemima. One person in the office feels this is wrong but doesn’t know what to do. What should they do?
This is a true story. The outcome was, nobody did anything, and Jemima ended up leaving her job, feeling that she had no choice after she found out what had happened and experienced severe anxiety and feelings of shame and bullying. Some would blame her for being in the closet, whilst others would understand, sometimes it has to be that way. But what could have changed to prevent this? If one person had stood up and told Jemima’s boss, then thanks to legal changes protecting people’s private-lives, her boss, whether approving of Jemima’s ‘life style’ or not, would be legally bound to act. If they did not act then this could be protested. Additionally, Jemima’s colleague who objected to this hacking, could have told Jemima and urged her to go to HR and report this as a violation. By doing nothing, nothing gets better.
Sometimes when you stand up. You make a difference. It really can take one person to do it, think of Rosa Parks.
Jose is Bipolar but feels if he tells anyone at work he will be fired because that’s happened in two previous jobs so he says nothing. When he gets insurance through his job he does not go to see a psychiatrist because he fears his disease being part of his permanent record and worries this will stigmatize him in the future. Consequently he pays for private care and spends a lot of money on medication.
One week he does not have any medication left and doesn’t have the money to replace them. He begins to get the side-effects of not being on his medication including being unable to sleep at night, paranoid thoughts, inability to concentrate and feelings of mania. He is not able to tell anyone what is going on, tries to do his work at home but because of not being well doesn’t do a complete job.
When he returns to work after getting paid and getting more medication his boss tells him he has to let him go because of poor performance. Jose loses his job and now does not have the money for his medication or any health insurance.
What could have been different here?
The American laws concerning healthcare protect us somewhat from workplace discrimination. This is not inclusive and it’s fallible because people can and do make up other reasons for firing their employees. If in doubt speak to the workplace commission in your state about what your rights are, knowing your rights is half the battle. Likewise, Jose’s boss would be breaking the law if he chose to disclose Jose’s health status to anyone else at his work place, so in this sense, choosing to speak to his boss about what was going on, protects Jose more than staying quiet.
The reality is however, that until stigma around mental health is gone, there are always ways to subvert someone based upon prejudice. If your boss is predisposed to thinking ‘everyone with bipolar is a nut-job’ they may circumvent the law and find a way to get rid of you despite your best efforts. Having anyone else on your side improves your chances, as well as letting the proper legal channels know. Ultimately however, not enough is done to self-guard those with mental illness in the work place and this is one failing that needs serious remedy. After all, we need an income to afford health care one way or another, if we cannot get a job, how are we expected to get treated?
The reality of mental illness is many people are in the closet about it, for a plethora of reasons, and until we reduce the stigma and judgement as a society, they have no incentive to come out. Mental illness does not mean you cannot be an asset to any job, but a level playing field means a fair one, where there is no condemnation or presupposition based upon a mental illness diagnosis.
For a GREAT example of mental illness at work – watch the TV series HOMELAND with Claire Danes. It’s one of the most realistic (as far as anything on TV goes) portrayals of the struggle against the system by a young woman with Bipolar 1.