What could be done to End Mental Health Judgement in the Workplace?
by Lucie Kavanagh, See Change Ambassador
I have written a lot about my experiences of being stigmatised and isolated in the workplace because of having mental health difficulties and it’s interesting to look at my experiences from another point of view. What could it have been like had the judgement not happened? What would have helped? What would have not only kept me in my job but helped other people in the organisation facing similar situations?
In the months after losing my job I slowly became aware that my confidence in myself as an employee was gone and that remains the case to this day. I would look at job adverts and feel anxiety building at the thought of being an employee again and having to face into the same difficulties, the undercurrents of hostility and annoyance, the pressure to mask and to perform above and beyond my role in order to compensate for my shortcomings, the fear of the same patterns beginning again. Would I manage to pull myself back and survive for a second time? Of course, I knew that every workplace is different and the chances of being in the same circumstances would hopefully be very slight, but in general I felt lost and worthless. The thought of trying to sell myself just felt impossible.
Eventually I decided that working for myself and from home might be my best option at least until I could build up my confidence a little. Because my pets were the biggest support to me in the hardest times, I started with voluntary work in animal rescue and then slowly started to build a small business for myself (dog minding), both of which I still do today. Looking at what is working for me at the moment, I often think about how a workplace could incorporate some of these things in order to create an atmosphere that would be more open and safer for people with different levels of difficulties or neurodiversity.
I have no worries about being judged. I have been very open about my difficulties and the people that I deal with as customers are so supportive and open to anything I have spoken or written about. Sometimes we share stories or information about resources.
I can follow a routine that suits me. I have a set list of jobs that need to be carried out each day and I know in advance which days are going to be busier than others. Within this routine of tasks, there is a little flexibility so that if I am having a difficult day I can postpone certain jobs and just concentrate on what is happening in the moment and reduce pressure on myself.
Being self-employed, I have lost a lot of the protections of being in a workforce. I don’t have sick leave options or holidays and there is more pressure on me to perform well in order to keep clients coming to me. It keeps me thinking about ways in which I can provide supports for myself. Being involved with organisations like See Change is very important to me and having my own ways in which I can monitor and keep on top of how I’m feeling is a big help too as well as learning to recognise when I need some time off.
I can ensure that I can have downtime every evening and go to bed when I need to. This might be the case for many employees but in my previous job I worked shifts and overnights. When I started to struggle, it was observed in appointments that night work was exacerbating my difficulties and while there were other options within the organisation, there was no flexibility offered to me to change my hours to daytime hours for a period of time. Since losing my job I have come to see how exhausted I was from years of night work and how it helps to be able to follow a healthier night-time routine. Even if sleep is difficult, I can make sure that I have rest.
If I have a period of time during the day in which I feel anxiety building up or start to feel overwhelmed I can take myself aside for short periods of time and sit with a cup of tea or take a break from what I am doing and come back to it when I am ready.
Receiving my diagnosis of autism and learning more about the positives of neurodiversity has helped me to build up some confidence by understanding my differences better and looking at ways of not seeing them solely in terms of shortcomings but also in ways in which they can aid my work eg. ability to become immersed in an interest or area that I want to learn, abilities to see difficult situations from alternative points of view and even my ability to compartmentalize and not be distracted by other things until I need to be.
Finally, and most importantly, by being open about my difficulties, the conversations about mental health and mental health difficulties just happen quite naturally and there’s comfort and reassurance in the fact that this awareness and acceptance is safe and ongoing.
Even though self-employment and lone working is very different from being part of a team in a workplace, all of what I have mentioned above could be incorporated into the vast majority of workplaces and these, along with protections like EAP services, sick leave, good HR departments and other individual supports in a workforce could mean that people who have mental health difficulties, whether known about or not, can continue to work and feel supported and confident to do so and use their strengths just as they have always done.
Since my own experiences I have spoken to people in different work situations and heard of supports that would have been so helpful to me had they existed where I worked: support from HR when someone is off sick and a chance to meet with them periodically in a neutral environment just to know that they are missed and that the workplace is looking forward to having them back when they are ready, a designated person to speak to in times of difficulty, mental health information days and links to a variety of supports that people might not be aware of. There are so many things, and some take very little effort, that help to show people that they are valued in times of struggle just as much as other times.
I think that what gets lost in a closed/stigmatising environment is the individuality of people. If we are not safe to share our difficulties, then we are also not safe to fully be ourselves. Skills, communication strategies, personality traits and the uniqueness of us all is a huge loss to a workplace where they could be fully utilised to add creativity, openness and cohesiveness to that community. Those of us who have difficulties and/or differences have survived very hard times and learned a lot of coping strategies as a result. We have knowledge of the mind, people, personalities, services and supports that others may not have.
Looking back at the effects of being judged at work, I came away from those experiences with no sense of self esteem or self-worth. I saw myself through the eyes of managers who had made disparaging comments and treated me as nothing more than an annoyance and that was the way I had come to feel about myself. I had lost the ability to look back on a much-loved career with pride because all I could see was how it had ended. I felt very alone and very lost.
Imagine the opposite of these things. Imagine the effect of working in an environment where you are valued and accepted for who you are and how that could aid pride in your work, enjoyment of the work environment and an increase in your self-confidence as a whole?
Have you ever heard the phrase “there is no “I” in team”? I think that, yes actually there could and should be. Everyone brings something unique to a group and by recognising that, there really is nothing to lose.
“Why are we constantly being compared to the “normal”? What is important about us that is being denied? What are we and others turning away from?
How do we naturally lead-as our vulnerable selves and not as bad copies of other people?
Who listens to us now? How can it be made possible that more people will listen?”
If you are having a tough time at the moment and need to reach out for support, please contact any of the following