A new report commissioned by Theresa May found that a staggering 300,000 people with long-term mental health problems lose their jobs every year.
Here, freelance journalist Rebecca Hastings, who was fired from a job two years ago after struggling with her mental health, meets other women who have been through the same thing – and, crucially, explains your rights as an employee when it comes to dealing with mental health issues in the workplace.
Two summers ago, I would sit at my desk from 8.30am until 5.30pm every day, thinking incessantly about dying.
I didn’t want to die – far from it. Rather, I’d simply resigned myself to the fact that I was going to. There was nothing the matter, of course – not physically, I mean. I’d had plenty of doctors tell me so on my frantic visits to the GP surgery down the road. But it didn’t stop those thoughts running through my head all the time. Waves of dizziness would come over me most days, and I’d have to get up from my desk, lock myself in a toilet cubicle and press my head between my legs.
Two months into this job, my boss fired me. What I didn’t realise then was that my poor mental health was the reason I was distracted, shy, unenthusiastic – all of the accusations my boss threw at me during my two months there. My mental health was, ultimately, the reason I was dismissed.
It turns out that my story is far from unusual. The Mental Health at Work Report 2016, compiled by Business in the Community, found that 9% of employees who presented with symptoms of poor mental health experienced “disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal”. I had to read this a number of times to make sure I wasn’t getting it wrong – but no, there it was in black and white. Disciplinary action? For being sick? Would an employer punish someone for having cancer, or a broken leg?
Not long after I was fired, I met Jodie*, 26, who was dismissed from her job at a marketing agency in London last year as a result of her anxiety disorder. “I struggled to concentrate and would snap at people,” she explains. “This eventually started to become obvious to my manager.”
A few months after developing these symptoms, Jodie was called to a meeting with her line manager and the director of the agency. “They told me they didn’t think it was right to keep me on. We agreed that it was a mutual parting of ways and was by no means firing.”
But was this legal? All employers in the UK must comply with the Equality Act 2010, which protects employees against discrimination in the workplace. Under the act, a mental health problem may be classed as a disability – and an employer discriminates against an employee with a disability if they treat them unfavourably because of their condition, without just reason.
However, Simon Cheves, an employment lawyer, explains that because Jodie’s stress levels had started to make other employees uncomfortable, her employers may have had a case. “In some instances, the mental health problem can cause the individual to give the impression of being aggressive, and that can lead an employer to be entitled to terminate them,” he says.
Elena, 26, a former primary school teacher, wasn’t directly fired from her job at the school where she worked – instead, she feels that she was forced to resign. After being put on sick leave for a week due to her anxiety, she started to notice that she was being ignored by senior management and they were leaving her out of meetings. The last straw came when she heard through a colleague that her employers had already hired another teacher to replace her when she inevitably left. “So at that point, I didn’t feel like I had a choice,” she says. “I handed in my resignation.”
Like all other employees at the school, Elena was required to fill out a form for the occupational health department when she joined, so they could confirm that she was fit for work. She wrote on the form that she’d been taking medication for anxiety. “I was never deceitful about it,” she says.
Cheves notes that disclosure of a mental health issue from the outset is crucial if an employee wants legal protection. “If an employer neither knew nor ought to have known that an employee was suffering from a disability, then they are not liable,” he explains. “Tribunals tend to be quite keen to investigate an employer who says they didn’t know, because there are usually telltale signs – sickness absences, for example.”
It appears that Elena’s symptoms were obvious, and should have made it clear to her employers that she needed help. Dr Rachel Lewis, an occupational psychologist, explains that the signs of a staff member’s mental health issue are sometimes evident in their behaviour at work. “What we might see is people having less energy at work, perhaps coming in late, taking a few days off sick. They might have a short fuse with colleagues, they might be making mistakes and dropping the ball,” she says. “We’re trying to deal with what’s going on in our heads, and so the standard, work-related things suffer.”
Of all employers who “ought to know” that a staff member is suffering with a mental health problem, you would imagine that the NHS is up at the top. But in the case of Tracey, 46, a former nurse, her bosses never picked up on the crippling depression that left her unable to do her job for seven months, during which time her employers had to find people to cover her shifts. “At this point, I still didn’t even know I had depression,” she says. “Nobody helped me.”
Tracey was ultimately dismissed from her job, and feels that her employers would have treated her differently if she’d had a physical illness. “With a physical condition, I could have said ‘my treatment ends in six months and I’ll be back then’, and it wouldn’t have been an issue.”
What these experiences serve to highlight is that more discussion, better attitudes and increased knowledge about mental health issues generally could have helped these womens’ bosses to recognise what was happening with their employees – especially in those cases where the employee has not explicitly shared their experience with mental health, such as Jodie and Tracey.
Though the problem is clearly far-reaching, resources to help employers have been introduced in recent years – Time to Change, an initiative run by mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, are tackling this stigma with their Employers’ Pledge. More than 500 businesses in the UK have now taken the pledge to demonstrate their commitment to talk more openly about mental health in the workplace and make sure that employees who are facing these problems feel supported.
Ultimately, the laws that are in place to protect us from mental health affecting our rights at work are strong and just. But, here’s the thing: no one seems to know about them. And crucially, the laws tell us that we are to blame if we don’t disclose our illness – which is really tricky, especially when many sufferers don’t realise they have a mental health problem to begin with.
When I picture myself sitting there at my old desk, I imagine how differently things could have turned out if I’d just been able to tell someone how I was feeling without fear of reprimand. And all I can do is hope that at some point in the not-too-distant future, it will become as normal as calling in sick with a cold.
*Names marked with an asterisk have been changed
Mental health: your rights in the workplace
Simon Cheves, an employment lawyer, explains your entitlements at work if you’re dealing with a mental health issue
What can I do if I feel I’ve been dismissed unfairly because of a mental health issue?
You can bring a claim to an employment tribunal for disability discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.
Does my mental health issue count as a disability?
In order to qualify as a disability, your condition must significantly impair your ability to undertake day-to-day activities – and it has to have lasted over a period of 12 months, or be likely to do so.
What should my employer be doing to help me?
Employers have a duty to put reasonable adjustments in place for any employee with a disability. “Often they are exacerbated by the stress of the workplace,” says Cheves. “So an employer might be required to investigate how they could be accommodated. They could be put on reduced hours, for instance.” Employers should also accommodate an employee with a mental health issue by allowing them time off for medical appointments, therapy and recovery.
Am I legally required to disclose my mental health problem on an equal opportunities form?
No – this is optional. There might be circumstances under which it is relevant to the role for the employer to know about a mental health problem – but this should be made clear at application level, explains Cheves.
What compensation could I be entitled to?
If the tribunal finds that the dismissal was unfair or disproportionate to the circumstances, they can make two types of award:
- The basic award is effectively a redundancy payment. It’s a fixed amount based on the age of the employee and their length of service, calculated on a week’s pay up to a cap.
- The compensatory award, which is the greater of a capped figure (about £78-80k) or a year’s pay.
If the tribunal finds that the dismissal was for a reason arising from a disability, or the employer’s failure to make reasonable adjustments, then there is no cap.