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Mental health and discrimination in the workplace

REPOST ARTICLE SOURCE: http://www.expolink.co.uk/2012/08/mental-health-and-discrimination-in-the-workplace/

Employers and colleagues have a moral obligation to promote and manage good mental health in the workplace and ensuring this is not neglected saves your business money and ensures your staff feel valued and supported. Estimations suggest that one British adult in four experiences at least one diagnosable mental health disorder in any given year. In the same period the Office of National Statistics believes that around 11 million people experience symptoms associated with poor mental health and around six million have symptoms that meet the diagnostic criteria for mental illness; anxiety and/or depression being the most common.

So-called ‘invisible’ illnesses such as bi-polar, OCD, stress and anxiety defy our need for empirical understanding. We can generally tell when a colleague is suffering from back problems or tonsillitis, but mental health is trickier and ascertaining when a colleague’s stresses are actually symptoms of a profound mental health condition can be highly problematic. Stigma around mental health problems is pervasive and often boils down to fear of the unknown, of seeing those suffering as unpredictable entities which we can’t reliably gauge or reconcile their behaviour as consistent with our own.

In 2010 changes were made to the Equality Act to clarify and consolidate discrimination law and encourage employers to put robust procedures in place for dealing with mental health issues. The Act also imposes a ban on questions about a prospective employee’s health at first interview stage. Whether employer or employee, it is clear to see that for society to run in a progressive and ethical fashion, both sides need protection and guidance. Stress-related illness has recently overtaken muscular and skeletal problems as the top cause of work absence and mental health is the largest cause of disability in the UK, accounting for 23% of the “disease burden” on the NHS (though less than 11% is spent on treating it).

In a 2009 survey by the mental health anti-stigma programme, Time to Change (which is run by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness), 92% of Britons felt their job prospects would be curtailed if they disclosed a mental health condition. Channel 4 recently explored mental health, societal perceptions and stereotypes in the unfortunately named series, “Channel 4 Goes Mad”. Furthering the deplorable moniker trend, one show The World’s Maddest Interview offered ring-side seats to eight people’s quest to be viewed as the “most employable” by a trio of successful business people; the ‘mad’ twist being that some of the candidates have lived with acute mental health problems in the past. The interviewers were unaware of the candidate’s histories as were the duo of psychiatrists watching over proceedings. There was excessive focus on “clever”, disorientating camera work (to signify what exactly?) but it was clear as we learnt more about the candidates that their motivation for committing to this surely quite nerve-wracking process was to show that awareness is crucial to prevention, treatment and survival. In the outcome, the individual deemed most employable had survived a highly debilitating, long-term mental health condition. The judges were pretty candid in their presuppositions of mental illness. One of the panel, Claude Littner of The Apprentice stated at the beginning that his staff had to be “fit for purpose” and while he would “feel sad” for such an individual, he would not employ them. As the process progressed he was forced to re-examine his prejudices and was visibly impressed by the resilience shown by the candidates and their stories of overcoming and coping with their illnesses. It was notable that some of the behaviour the candidates exhibited that was deemed ideal qualities for an employee were actually characteristics of their illness; attention to detail, good planning and forethought etc. At one point Littner cited ‘risk taking’ as a venerable quality in a candidate which is also a common symptom of bi-polar.

A Time to Change spokesperson told Expolink; “One in six workers will experience a mental health problem so this is clearly an issue that employers need to address. Sadly we know that people do face discrimination at work because of their mental illness and the ’4 Goes Mad’ season showed that many employers are losing out on talented and skilled people because of this.”

“Many leading companies have found that making a strategic commitment to the mental wellbeing of their workforce not only has benefits for their staff but also benefits their bottom-line, improving productivity and staff retention. So, it makes sense on every level.”

Evidence suggests that work and the associated routine are beneficial to those living with mental health problems and campaign groups are pushing, not only for stigmas to be addressed and employment law to reflect all party needs, but also for employers to consider work placements to allow those with mental health issues to re-train or become accustomed to being back in the workplace. With all this litigation and heightened public visibility, employers could be reticent about making the correct required accommodations and adaptations to a person’s work situation. Returning to the analogy of visual cues versus invisible, it is easy enough to equip an employee with an ergonomic keyboard or orthopaedic chair to combat or relieve a physical issue. But many simple things can be done to assist a colleague with mental health problems in order for them to cope better at work; it might be possible to move the individual to a more appropriate job, to assign some of their responsibilities to another, especially during periods of absence or annual leave, have some flexibility with hours, possibilities for job share etc. Much can be achieved with minimal impact on costs, operations and HR. You can find a wealth of information at the Department of Work and Pensions devoted pages.

Legally, employers cannot question an employee about their physical or mental health and it is only permitted to give pre-employment medical questionnaires when offering an individual a position, and then only for specific reasons. If either party has concerns there are a number of options for communication; HR, charity and campaign groups, Occupational Health or Employee Assistance Programmes that offer counselling. Creating barriers to disclosing mental health issues mean that cases will increasingly go unreported and individuals won’t seek the necessary help and be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Thanks to the work of organisations such as Mind, Rethink Mental Illness and Sane, the government is beginning to honour its commitments to mental health in the UK which will be bolstered, no doubt, by a number of MPs recently disclosing their own issues with depression, anxiety and OCD. A new private Members Bill, that was supported by all UK parties as well as the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Mind, Rethink Mental Illness and the Law Society is imminent and will remove discriminatory laws affecting those with mental health problems such as barring them from being jurors, MPs, company directors and school governors.

The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2030 more people will be affected by depression than any other health condition. It is up to the rest of us, as colleagues, employers and friends to ensure that ignorance and intolerance does not prevail and to spread the message that people with mental health problems can make a valuable, and welcome, contribution to public life. We have made considerable moves to reduce and manage the stigma of racism, sexism and ageism, why not mental health? We don’t allow ethnicity and gender to define people, how can such reductive labels be appropriate for those with mental health problems? This is a moral issue as well as an ethical one and one that requires work from all of us.

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