What mental health judgement looks like in the workplace
by Keith Dore, See Change Ambassador
During the month of April, we will be exploring the impact of mental health judgement in the workplace and what we can all do to help end the judgement of ourselves and others. To kickstart the month, Keith Dore shares his experience of what mental health judgement in the workplace looks like:
In 2018 I had gotten to such a low point in work that I felt I needed to move to a different office. I was working in a junior position at the time and to request a move I would have to arrange to talk to a senior manager. I was finishing off a college degree and I felt a new office and a change of scenery would be good for me. I had spent some time in hospital at the end of 2017 due to my own mental health and a serious attempt on my own life. I arranged to speak to the manager in question and I will never forget the conversation. The manager was opposing my request to transfer to another office and I could feel myself getting emotional.
I don’t know why I did it, but I blurted out that I had been in hospital, that the job was affecting my mental health and that I had self-harmed only a few months ago. The manager looked stunned, clammed up and became even more official. She had a look of complete shock on her face and hurried to finish the meeting with promises that she would see what she could do in relation to my transfer request. I left the office shocked that I had just shared my story but I know now that I was at my wits end and just thought that I might be offered some sort of help or at least some empathy. No. Nothing. Just a manager who looked as uncomfortable and shocked as they had ever been in their lives. I left that office shocked, vulnerable and embarrassed for myself. I went home from work after my shift not knowing whether I had done the right thing or not.
The next day in work I was at one end of the carpark working on one of the vehicles and I saw the manager I had spoken to walking towards me. It’s a walk that would take about 10 seconds but in those 10 seconds my mind started working overtime, thinking that after the initial surprise of what I had told her that she was in a better position to talk to me. The manager introduced herself and said to me,
‘Did you say what I think you said to me the last night in the office?’
‘Yes, about what you said you did…’
‘Yes’. Confirmation that I had said it and she had heard it and now here it would come. The help, the signposting to welfare services perhaps, advice on who to talk to or perhaps just a listening ear in the moment. None of the above.
‘Yea, I thought so’. And she walked off. Not another word said.
I stood there stunned for the second time in a few days. Well, if that’s the way it is the lesson learnt here is to never speak about mental health. That’s what I thought in the moment. The reality is that a better understanding of mental health difficulties comes through education and opening up and being vulnerable. Sometimes it takes time though and sometimes the person you open up to is not ready to listen. I don’t believe this particular manager was equipped with the tools to effectively deal with this instance of mental health difficulties in the workplace. On the other hand, on a basic human level, I believe that we all have it within us to empathise with someone who opens up about their mental health. If you don’t feel equipped to help the person in the moment, just be honest and tell them. You can also tell them though that you are there to listen, to try to understand and to support them as best as you can.
A simple conversation in the office as all the usual morning paperwork is being done. It’s a workplace in south Dublin and the two managers on duty have just paraded the crew ensuring all workers are fit and well and that they know what their duties are for the day. It’s the first day of the shift and we chat about what we need to do. A particular employee’s name comes up in conversation.
‘Ah him, have you ever had to work with him?’
‘No, I haven’t’
‘Ah here, I could tell you some stories’
Off he goes with a litany of stories about this particular employee. Not to be repeated here but if told to you I bet you’d have a puzzled and/or bemused look on your face and say to me ‘No, that can’t be true’.
‘Yep, apparently all true!’
‘Well the latest apparently is he tried to kill himself. Imagine being on a job with a fella like that. You couldn’t trust him. Imagine he tried to kill himself and took you with him.’
Something dropped in my stomach. Looking at this manager saying this to me. Me. The fella who only five years previous had attempted to leave this world. If that is how this story is being told to me, then what stories were told about me at the time? Am I seen as untrustworthy because of my own mental health difficulties in the past? Are there colleagues of mine who would shudder at the thought of working with me? He didn’t need to know anything about my own story to make me feel judged. In my mind I had put myself in the role of the employee he was talking about and had taken on that damning judgement as if it had been meant for me in the first place. Would I now have to prove myself to this other manager over and above anyone else to show that I am capable and competent in my role just because he will judge me differently if I open up about my mental health?
I remember saying something but I can’t remember what. He had moved on with his paperwork and wasn’t looking at me anymore. I wasn’t going to change his mind today anyway. Does he even deserve to hear a part of my story? Not today.
Mental health judgement does not always have to be direct and obvious. A bit of workplace gossip or banter can often trigger something in a person listening to it that makes them question their own worth. A simple way to avoid this would be to perhaps consider either not passing on that sort of gossip or if you felt some definite urge to tell the story, tell it from a place of kindness and empathy.
It is not what mental health judgement looks like but more what it feels like.
If you are having a tough time at the moment and need to reach out for support, please contact any of the following