I can't see into the future
Posted Monday 19 December 2011
Even sympathetic employers sometimes find it hard to understand mental health problems. This guest blog vividly illustrates some of the barriers to disclosing a mental health problem at work, on the same day Mind and the CIPD release new guidance for employers.
Here’s the thing. I have a complex mental condition. Here’s the other thing. I have worked in a challenging and responsible job since 2002. My caseload includes a number of clients with the same mental health disorder as me.
So when I was assessed and finally diagnosed just 10 months ago, I decided that I would be open and honest with my employers about the nature of my ‘issues’. Given that I had taken considerable time off since 2007, as I struggled with what then was an unknown problem, I believed that this would be the most productive way forward.
I had had experience of trying to mask periods of emotional instability from previous employers – helped, no doubt by the uncertainty of medical professionals who were led to believe that my ability to hold down responsible jobs meant that I couldn’t possibly be suffering a complex mental health condition.
I have been open with my line manager throughout the period of uncertainty about my diagnosis to the final conclusion and have found that, on an individual level both my manager and my colleagues have been willing to learn and try to understand my condition and how it affects my work.
However, the sickness absence procedures themselves are applied as a one-size-fits-all solution to long-term sickness, regardless of the intrinsic differences between physical and emotional and mental illnesses. I don’t think a senior manager would ask someone with cancer, “a year ago you told us the chemo would work, so why have you gone off again and are now telling us that you need radiotherapy?”
Unfortunately, having remained at work for eight months following a difficult period, when my initial treatment failed, I was signed off again and I was asked by the senior manager why the first treatment I had tried had not worked and was asked “what guarantee do we have that the new treatment they are suggesting will work and that you will not be signed off again?”
Now correct me if I’m wrong, but even the most highly regarded medical training does not include crystal ball reading, I believe that’s only on offer at Hogwarts!
However, such questions betray an underlying suspicion, or even prejudice, about mental illness, and that is: it’s all in my head! If you don’t fit neatly into the procedures, which again and again, I am told are there to support me in remaining in work, then employers seem to waver between wanting to help, and threatening me with capability procedures.
So how do they deal with the paradox of the worker with mental illness whose work is characterised as ‘excellent’? In the present climate the pressure not to disclose mental health issues will grow, but how can we educate employers to view those with mental health problems in the same way that they view physical health problems?
Our guest blogger experienced her first episode of mental illness at university. After graduation she travelled and worked for charities in Africa, before returning to England to work as a teacher and probation officer.
Over the last several years she has experienced ongoing mental health problems, and was finally diagnosed in 2011 with borderline personality disorder.
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