Long Reads

Why your employer needs to take action on mental health

Posted by
Rebecca Hastings
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Some 300,000 people lose their jobs every year due to mental ill health, while 15% of those who present with symptoms of poor mental health face disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal. Clearly, we need action.

Three years ago, I was fired from my job as a result of my panic disorder. I was 23 years old, working as a receptionist and office administrator at a small magazine publishing company. My illness made it difficult to focus on work – I would get frequent spells of dizziness and nausea, as well as full-blown panic attacks, and I’d have to go to the bathroom to try and get my breathing back to normal. I struggled to remember things and often made mistakes, and on one occasion, I was so panicky that I had to call in sick, pretending I had food poisoning.

Two months into the job, my boss – who, until this point, had seemingly taken delight in yelling at me in front of the entire office – gently explained that I was “a nice girl”, but maybe I would be better suited to a low-pressure position, and that she didn’t think publishing was for me.

Immediately, I started to panic about what I’d do next. I threw myself into finding another role straight away, but my confidence had been shattered – at every interview, I had to make up a cover story to hide the fact that I’d been fired. I was unemployed for a month, and I’m still repaying the overdraft debt I accumulated during that time. And when I did get another job, I was constantly on edge throughout the first few months, always worried that I’d do something to make them fire me.

“I threw myself into finding another role straight away, but my confidence had been shattered”     

It might sound like an unusual story, but unfortunately, I’m far from the only person that this has happened to. According to the Thriving at Work report, which was commissioned last year, 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem fall out of work every year, at a cost of up to £99 billion to the UK economy. And the Mental Health at Work Report 2017, compiled by Business in the Community, found that 15% of employees who presented with symptoms of poor mental health experienced “disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal”.

It’s a vicious cycle – if we can’t talk about our mental health problems for fear of losing our jobs, we start to feel even worse. And it’s not just employees that are in danger because of this toxic culture – employers suffer, too. When there are no proper measures in place to support staff with mental health problems, it’s a lot harder to retain employees, and extra money needs to be spent on finding cover and hiring new people. 

In some ways, however, these numbers aren’t all that surprising, considering that so many of us experience stress – one of the leading causes of mental ill health – on a day-to-day basis. How many of us have felt as though we couldn’t leave the office on time because everyone else was staying late? Or lain awake at night worrying about the next day’s tasks? We live in a world where stress is glamorised, and has almost become synonymous with hard work. In fact, a UK-wide survey by the Mental Health Foundation has found that almost three quarters of adults have, at some point over the last year, been so stressed they felt “overwhelmed or unable to cope”.

It makes sense – for a lot of people, work is all they can afford to think about. Job security is increasingly harder to come by, and in lots of industries, salaries are getting lower and lower. But as much as we take this for granted nowadays, it’s dangerous. The survey also found that 32% of adults said they had experienced suicidal feelings as a result of stress, and 16% of adults said they had self-harmed for the same reason. Poor mental health in the workplace is literally killing us. Clearly, we need action – and we need it now.

“We live in a world where stress is glamorised, and has almost become synonymous with hard work”

The Thriving at Work report laid out guidelines for employers on promoting better mental health in the workplace. These included producing a “mental health at work plan”, encouraging open conversations around mental health and the support available to employees, and providing staff with good working conditions.

It’s been almost seven months since the report was published, but we’re still not seeing a lot of change. In fact, the findings of a survey by independent charity Health@Work just last month revealed that most UK employers fail to meet even the most basic of standards when it comes to supporting staff with their mental health.

While conversations around mental health have been started, we’ve still got a long way to go. There’s a common misconception that if people with mental health problems just “talk about it”, everything will be okay – but at my previous job, there was no way I could have done anything to help myself. The environment created in the office meant that I was terrified to tell my boss – I felt I would be laughed at, or told off for making excuses.

The responsibility should never be on the sufferers themselves. We can’t do it all on our own – our leaders, managers and colleagues also need to be trained on how to support people with mental health problems at work. There have been tiny rumblings of change in this area: a Leeds-based solicitor, Jodie Hill, is leading a national campaign calling for mandatory mental health first aiders in every workplace. My boss owned the company I worked for, so there was no one above her to teach her people management skills. For organisations like that, Hill’s petition could make a huge difference – if a mental health first aider had been on site, there would have at least been someone for me to turn to.

By following the guidelines in the Thriving at Work report, all companies can create a culture in which employees feel that it’s okay to tell someone if they’re struggling, and that they’ll be helped in every way possible. The recommendations are tailored to suit all kinds of workplaces, and none of them involve spending a lot of money – so why are so many still not implementing them?

It comes down to the usual problem: mental health is still taken nowhere near as seriously as physical health. When it comes down to it, I wouldn’t have been fired if I’d underperformed due to migraines, or a broken arm. Companies need to start taking responsibility and putting effort and time into supporting colleagues who are struggling, so that someday in the near future, everyone feels just as comfortable calling in sick due to a bad panic attack as they do with the common cold.

Images: Getty, Charles Deluvio, Rawpixel