After one employer responded to Madalyn Parker’s request for a mental health sick day in a brilliant, understanding way, it feels like everyone’s talking about mental wellbeing and its relationship to working culture.
But for people with mental illness, thinking about how mental health and your job can work together isn’t a new struggle.
Those with mental health issues have to deal with stigma, a fear that their employers may not understand their needs, and judgment from their colleagues – all while their mental illness makes things harder.
These people will know that not every boss is as understanding as Madalyn Parker’s. Office culture can be overwhelming, bosses can refuse to be flexible, and many people with mental illness end up being pushed out of their jobs and struggling to find work.
Now, new research from Rethink Mental Illness reveals just how far we have to go when it comes to making the working world comfortable for people with mental illness.
They say that new figures show that people affected by mental illness are facing a ‘locked door’ of prejudice and misunderstanding that keeps them out of the workplace.
Through a poll of 500 employed adults that make, or directly influence hiring decisions in a company, Rethink found that 68% of people able to hire staff would worry that someone with a severe mental illness wouldn’t fit in with the team.
83% would worry that someone with severe mental illness wouldn’t be able to cope with the demands of the job.
And 74% would worry that someone with severe mental illness would require lots of time off.
To be clear, these concerns are common, but they’re not entirely accurate. The ‘mentally ill’ label does not mean that someone cannot cope with work, won’t fit in, or will require lots of time off – and if they do require certain adjustments so they can do their job to the best of their ability, it’s the workplace’s job to provide flexibility and understanding.
These concerns may be part of the reason that just 43% of people with mental health problems are in employment (that’s compared to 74% of the general population), and why for some conditions, the employment rate is even lower – just 8% of those with schizophrenia, for example, are currently in work.
‘I’ve been affected by mental illness since I was 16 years old but was diagnosed with bipolar when I was 25,’ says Denise Martin, from Bristol.
‘Despite my mental health condition I worked as a mental health nurse all my life until 2011. I became physically unwell in 2011 with spinal problems and was forced to leave my job.
‘Being off work for a long period of time has really knocked my confidence, but when I’ve felt better I’ve able to go for job interviews.
‘It’s always a dilemma as to whether I should disclose the fact I have bipolar or not.
‘It feels like a risk, which it shouldn’t, and unfortunately I have experienced stigma when I have disclosed.
‘I had a job offer withdrawn at the last minute when I told them about my condition. It feels like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place – a benefits system and the workplace, neither of which understand mental illness.’
It’s easy to assume that the low employment rate is just down to mental illness reducing motivation and people’s willingness to fight for a job. That’s a factor, but it’s not the whole story.
Rethink found that two thirds of people with mental illness who are unemployed are looking for work or say they want to work. People with mental illness want jobs, and they’re working hard to get them – but there are loads of obstacles standing in their way.
The answer? Make bosses feel they’re better equipped to hire people with mental health issues.
Over half of those surveyed said they feel they wouldn’t know how to support someone with a severe mental health condition at work, and many bosses worries are down to a lack of knowledge and understanding about specific health conditions.
56% of those surveyed said they’d be more likely to employ someone with mental health issues if they felt better equipped to support them, through training, for example.
‘These figures show us that the vast majority of managers still have cold feet when it actually comes to employing people with mental illness,’ says Brian Dow, director of external affairs at Rethink Mental Illness.
‘No wonder many people with mental illness feel like they’re pushing against a locked door when it comes to employment. Prejudice and confusion are keeping people who are well enough and want to work out of employment.
‘Employing people with mental illness is not as fraught or complex as people seem to think.
‘Often the adjustments people need are easy and don’t cost anything, like flexible working, quiet areas and well being plans.’
For more information on how to make workplaces more supportive of those with mental health, both employers and employees can read our guide, and have a read of Rethink’s explanation of reasonable adjustments for mental health in the workplace.
Mental illness shouldn’t prevent you from doing something you love that you’re brilliant at. Employers need to realise that, adjust, and do everything they can to make sure workers with mental health issues are comfortable – especially considering that recent research suggests more than half of us will experience mental illness at some point in our lives.