As part of our Open Minds campaign, Emily Manson asks what employers can do to make sure staff with mental health issues feel able to discuss their problems, and what employees can do to help tackle their illness
Many people with mental health problems are afraid to tell their employers about their illness for fear of being stigmatised or even losing their jobs. Others may find it hard to hold down a job at all – sometimes because of the need to attend regular appointments or take sick leave.
So what can an employer do to help employees who are experiencing problems, and what can an employee do to help themselves stay in employment or manage their employer?
For employers, it’s important that your business is prepared, able to spot the signs and ready to support staff in the right way. While employers aren’t expected to provide all the answers, an open and supportive environment can make all the difference for the employee.
“Breaking free of the old-fashioned idea that stress is a sign of some kind of weakness is an absolute necessity,” says Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind. “The more staff, right through from managers to junior workers, are able to be open about their mental health, the more comfortable our workplaces will be with the idea that mental health problems can happen to everyone, and need to be discussed and addressed.”
Wendy Bartlett, founder of contract catering company Bartlett Mitchell, adds: “Change is a door inside that can only be opened by yourself; an employer’s role is to try to open the door a chink so the need for change can be seen.”
Types of mental illness
There are many different types of mental illness. Some of the most common are listed below, although there are many others and it is not uncommon for people to be diagnosed with one or more of these illnesses.
● Bipolar disorder
● Post-traumatic stress disorder
● Psychosis (although this is a symptom not a diagnosis)
● Eating disorders
The Warning Signs
Signs that someone is experiencing or maybe developing a mental illness will vary from person to person but common traits to look out for include:
● Losing interest in activities and tasks that were previously enjoyed.
● Poor performance at work.
● Mood swings that are very extreme or fast and out of character.
● Self-harming behaviour, such as cutting.
● Changes in eating habits and/or appetite: over-eating, bingeing, not eating.
● Sleep problems.
● Increased anxiety, looking or feeling “jumpy” or agitated, sometimes including panic attacks.
● Feeling tired and lacking energy.
● Isolating yourself, socialising less; spending too much time in bed.
● Wanting to go out a lot more, needing very little sleep, feeling highly energetic, creative and sociable, making new friends rapidly, trusting strangers or spending excessively – this may signal that you are becoming “high”.
● Hearing and seeing things that others don’t.
● Other differences in perception; for example, mistakenly believing that someone is trying to harm you, is laughing at you, or trying to take over your body.
What should employees with a mental illness do?
You may or may not want to disclose fully to your employer about your mental wellbeing, but you can still talk about things that are making your job difficult, such as workload, communication and your working environment.
A chef who has experienced depression says that he wanted to get back to work as soon as possible when unwell, as it was better than moping about the house. “However, the most important thing is that they feel within themselves that they can function in the work place,” he explains. “The time this takes will be different for everyone – some people need just a few days or couple or weeks, but for some people this can take years.”
Factors which will help include:
● Make sure you take your breaks at work.
● Listen to relaxing music in the workplace.
● Get a work-life balance and make clear boundaries between the two.
● Start a “to do” list at the end of each day for the next day – it will help clear your head.
● Ask for help – if things are getting too much to cope with try talking to your personnel department, trade union representative or other relevant members of staff.
● Keep in touch with your friends and relatives and talk to them about your worries.
If you do talk to your employer about your mental health, remember you can say as much or as little as you want. Consider:
● Being open may help you get the additional support you need.
● Request a one-to-one meeting and discuss how your condition relates to your work
● Suggest ways in which you can manage your health to enable you to work well.
● Don’t forget that you are the expert about you and your needs.
● Agree a plan with your boss including changes and schedule a follow up meeting to see if things have improved.
● Take notes in between the meetings on whether the agreed changes help or not.
How can employers support employees with mental illness?
According to a housekeeper who has experienced bipolar disorder, people in positions of authority in the hospitality industry need to learn about the signs and symptoms of mental health problems.
“Given the amount of people working in any hospitality business, there will normally be someone who suffers,” she says. “Instead of treating them like a leper it would be great to have informed support. This would also lead to a more loyal workforce.
“It’s the reaction that needs to change. Employers need to ask what they can do to help, rather than just removing all the cutlery from the kitchen, which once happened to me.”
If you become aware that a member of staff is experiencing a mental health issue, try to:
● Set up an open and honest line of communication with them. Focus on the person not the problem. Ask if they need short-term adjustments to their working environment.
● Encourage and promote an open working environment. Employees need to feel confident and supported to disclose their mental health issues.
● Keep records of sickness absence and use them to analyse the causes of absence.
● Promote a supportive working environment with regular catch-ups.
● They are the expert on their mental health, so they are best placed to know what they need.
If staff need to take sick leave because of their mental health condition, remember to:
● Keep in contact.
● Explore adjustments to working conditions or to the working environment to aid their return such as flexible hours or changes to their responsibilities.
● Develop a recovery action plan to identify the signs of mental distress, who you may need to contact, and what support would help.
● Be aware of personal issues affecting staff such as illness, bereavement or other stress-related factors which may be contributory factors to their condition.
For further information, contact the Employee Assistance Professionals Association at www.eapa.org.uk.
What is the legal position?
Employees have a right not to be discriminated against. It is not fair for employers to treat staff differently because they have a mental health problem. The Equality Act 2010 requires employers to be flexible and make “reasonable adjustments” for people with disabilities to enable them to do their jobs. (Source: Mind)
Key points to remember
● Employers mustn’t treat you unfavourably because they think you have a disability.
● Employers must make reasonable adjustments to work practices for disabled employers.
● Employers are not allowed to use “pre-employment questionnaires” to ask about your health before you are offered a job.
For further advice
General advice is available from Mind at www.mind.org.uk. The charity’s legal advice service and legal unit can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 03004 666463.
Advice Now is an online legal advice service: www.advicenow.org.uk
Central government provides advice on discrimination in the workplace through its Directgov website: http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Employment/ResolvingWorkplaceDisputes/DiscriminationAtWork/DG_10026557.
HOW I DEAL WITH STRESS TODAY – ONE CHEF’S ADVICE
● A problem shared is a problem halved. Talk to someone – anyone; just talk.
● If your stress is work related, then talk to someone senior within your company.
● Seek counselling.
● Keep in touch with family and friends – especially if you are away from home.
Look after your body
● Learn to breath. If you’re getting wound up, take deep breaths and count to 10 slowly.
● Eat well – it’s surprising how few chefs really do!
● Exercise – take your anger out in the gym, on the bike or out jogging.
● Masking the pain with drink, cigarettes or recreational drugs only compounds the problem.
Look after your soul
● Read a biography of someone you admire. The act of reading takes your mind off your situation and may provide inspiration to rise out of the darker periods. For me it was Michael Caine’s What’s it all about? It saved my life.
● Learn to smile. Personally, I find this encourages positivity in my life.
Embrace the good stress
● Without some stress, we would just have inertia. In fact trains would be empty on a Monday morning without it.
● Plan ahead for busy periods.
● Seek help, expertise and experience where necessary.
● Allow some room for failure – you can achieve anything by failing small and failing often.
WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE
By blogger with manic depression Nineteenplusseven
Until we reach a point where mental health issues are understood as chronic, manageable conditions, we will not see an end to antiquated attitudes. The words “bipolar” and “psychotic”, for example, are often used to dismiss a person’s behaviour, to set them outside the acceptable norm and label them as weird or scary. This essentially makes it OK not just to reject the person but to making them the subject of derision and, often, ridicule.
Similarly, the idea that all depression is subject to the laws of cause and effect, rather than being simply a state in which one exists for variable periods of time, shows a lack of common understanding of a condition affecting a sizeable percentage of the population.
Everyone is on a sliding scale of normality and mental illnesses are like any chronic condition. As long as you have a handle on it, know what your triggers are and what to do to keep yourself stable, then you are more than capable of holding down a job. There tends to be an extremist perception of these illnesses partly because of media portrayals and also because there’s so little understanding of them. In 20 years’ time I hope it will be seen as an illness like epilepsy, and the stigma will be removed.
KEY FACTS ON MENTAL HEALTH
● ANYONE can get a mental health problem.
● Every year, one in four of us will experience a mental health problem.
● One in six people in the workplace experience a mental health problem.
● Stress can contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes and other illnesses as well as adversely affecting the immune system – leaving people open to other diseases.
● 87% of people with mental health problems have encountered stigma and discrimination in their lives.
Businesses that ignore wellbeing are losing out: Poor mental health costs British industry £1,035 per employee or £26b a year, through sick leave or underperformance at work. Companies which invest in the wellbeing of their staff can save considerably.