Recently I ran a poll on Twitter “Would you feel confident being honest with your employer about a mental health issue?” (If you don’t follow me on Twitter, how dare you)! 72% Answered ‘NO’. The results didn’t surprise me, but I did feel sad. Mental illness is hard enough without the added pressure of worrying about your livelihood.
I didn’t tell anyone about my anxiety, let alone my employer for a very long time. People would assume that I couldn’t do my job properly or that I was unhinged in some way, at least that’s what I thought. I viewed my condition as a weakness and if I wanted to progress then I must keep my weakness a secret. And we all know how well that turned out…! But if you’d like a refresher give this a read:
https://weallmadhere.com/2013/06/25/once-upon-a-time/ – sorry about the bad grammar.
I must admit, I’ve been relatively lucky. My experiences with employers have been positive. However, the point should be made that I work (or have worked) for big corporations with big HR Departments. Larger companies are more likely to value laws that protect against discrimination, as they don’t want to risk a lawsuit and the publicity that comes with it. I also like to think that they genuinely care about the health of their employees!
When I had my breakdown I was signed off work by a doctor for one month. The company I worked for paid me in full without question. Also my manager at the time was extraordinary. There’s never a week that goes by in which I don’t feel grateful for her support. She’d experienced a similar condition and was therefore very clued up on mental health.
In spite of all this, which I certainly don’t take for granted, I did experience some negativity. When I returned to work I noticed that things had changed. People looked at me differently and members of the department who didn’t seem to know I existed in the past, now knew my face. It didn’t take a genius to understand why. I was the ‘nut case’ who disappeared for a while. I remember one of the directors (who never spoke to me) made a big show of welcoming me back on my first day and saying how much I’d been missed. It was cringe worthy and so obviously for the benefit of the HR Advisor stood next to me.
Even after six months back in work certain responsibilities that I had undertook in the past such as, entertaining book buyers at events were still withheld. In meetings I would be asked if I was “ok” or needed a break? (Not by my manager). I appreciate their intentions were good, but all it did was confirm my original fears. They didn’t think I could do my job anymore. I was tainted. After a year it became obvious that I would never be promoted or accepted in a higher role… because I couldn’t cope with the pressure right? They couldn’t trust me. So in the end I left and went to work for an Indie publisher with the intention that my condition would remain a secret. I wanted to re-brand myself.
Fast forward another year and I now work for another big corporation. It’s a long story that includes a crazy Ex-boss who threw a chair at an intern and called me a b**ch when I came up with the sales forecast. I couldn’t make this sh** up, every day was like a trip to Wonderland! In fairness, he was 80 years old and probably should’ve retired a decade ago. Still I learned a Hell of a lot in that role! Five years’ experience in ten months.
Back to the present. After consideration I decided that once I’d passed my probation, (I’m not an idiot) I would be honest with my manger and the Publishing Director about my Anxiety. I’m a mental health blogger for Christ’s sake and I felt huge responsibility to the cause. Why should I have to hide it? It’s nothing to be ashamed of and if they treated me differently afterwards then we’d be having another meeting to discuss this. I had my plan and I was determined to do things on my terms. This is what I said:
I would like to make you aware that I have an Anxiety Disorder and can sometimes cause panic attacks. This isn’t something that will affect my work any more than a cold would, but I’d like you to be aware that sometimes I may require a degree of patience and I would appreciate your support. I’m happy to answer any questions about it if you have any.
As soon as I finished speaking the Publishing Director said, “Yeah we already knew that, we googled you before your interview.” Bollocks how could I have been so naïve! I must admit I was floored by their non-judgemental approach. “We trust that you can do the job successfully and you’ve given us no reason to doubt this. We’re happy to support you and thank you for your honesty.”
I actually went to the toilets and cried a little afterwards, I was so relieved. It gave me hope that some employers really do value the emotional wellbeing of their staff.
Nine months on and I’m pleased to say that I’m very happy here. My condition isn’t an issue even worthy of interest (which is exactly what I wanted).
Ok so if you’re thinking of telling your employer about a mental health issue then you need to be aware of the facts.
Technically you’re protected by The Equality Act. This protects people from discrimination. “It brings together the law that was found in the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), the Race Relations Act, and the Sex Discrimination Act. It protects people from being discriminated against because of certain characteristics, such as gender, age or disability. You might not think of yourself as disabled, but if your mental health condition has a serious impact on your day-to-day life over a long period then it might be considered a disability under this law.” The Time to Change website is filled with useful information. http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/your-organisation/support-workplace/where-do-i-stand-legally – they also recommend contacting the Mind legal team if you have any queries or concerns. http://www.mind.org.uk/about-us/our-policy-work/legal-casework/
Plan – (the below suggestions are purely opinion based so please don’t take what I say as gospel. You know what is best for you).
- If you’ve started a new job, don’t mention your condition until your probation period is over, (just to be safe). I hope this wouldn’t be necessary but after probation you’re entitled to more protection.
- You can only be absent from work without a sick note for seven working days.
- It’s safer to tell an employer that has a solid HR Department. As I mentioned earlier, HR are normally keen to make sure that the company follows legal requirements. Discrimination is a serious complaint.
- Tell your manager and preferably another member of the team (as a witness). If you feel comfortable bring a HR representative in with you.
- Prepare a speech beforehand so that you’re clear about what you’re going to say. Assure them that it won’t affect your performance, but liken it to a virus that might require patience at times. Also encourage them to ask questions.
- Discrimination is real – contact the Time to Change team if you would like to discuss an incident.
Being open isn’t something that you need to do and as I said, you know what is right for you.
Hopefully in the next ten years things will be more transparent.