Learning to be honest about mental illness
When I first suffered from serious depression, telling others at work seemed like a bad idea. I didn’t want to be stigmatised for being mentally unwell and thought it would impair my career. So I only told my immediate bosses, as I had no choice but to explain my absence from work while I recovered. Research from Time to Change confirms that mental illness is the conversation people feel least comfortable talking about with their manager or even friends at work.
During my second major depressive episode, I was more open. It’s bad enough being unwell without the extra stress of covering up your symptoms. The support of others made a difference to my recovery and I will always be grateful to friends and colleagues who got in touch.
How to help a colleague who is suffering.
The NHS has a helpful list of possible symptoms that you could look out for if you suspect a colleague or friend is struggling. Typically, the person…
- Has lost interest in doing things they normally enjoy.
- Seems to be feeling down or hopeless.
- Has slower speech and movements, or is more fidgety and restless than normal.
- Feels tired, doesn’t have much energy.
- Is overeating or has lost their appetite.
- Is sleeping more than usual, or isn’t able to sleep.
- Has trouble concentrating on everyday things, such as watching television or reading the paper.
Ask if your colleague would like to talk about their symptoms.
The first step is to ask if someone would like to chat about their symptoms. You might tell them that they are already showing great strength by talking about their problems. Plan where you are going to speak. It should be somewhere they feel comfortable, quiet and private. Ask questions and actively listen. That means:
- Minimise disruptions; like phones ringing, or notifications popping up.
- Try to have eye contact; unless the person you are talking to doesn’t seem comfortable with that.
- Be open: which means open arms and turning slightly towards them.
- Acknowledge what is being said with appropriate nods and gestures, and repeat what they’ve said, to check you have got it right.
- Ask direct and appropriate questions – but it’s not appropriate to probe for more details than a person is prepared to give.
- When the conversation ends, recap what you have discussed and agreed, and make sure you do what you say you will.
Ask if they would like to seek professional help.
You could offer to help put together a plan, to get the appropriate support in order to minimise tasks that may be worsening their symptoms. They may need time to attend outpatient appointments, psychotherapy and other commitments. It is important that if at anytime you believe the person to be putting himself, or herself, or anyone else, at harm you contact others, such as their GP or organisations such as the Samaritans.
Display posters in staff rest areas providing support available to employees. For smaller organisations this maybe from the health service and voluntary sector; larger organisations may have their own team;
A lot of relief can come from working on yourself in your own time. But of course you may need outside medical, or professional help. This blog is not intended to replace such important services. This may involve conversations with your employer or occupational health specialist. Here’s some more information that may be helpful.
What does the law say?
Your legal rights protect your mental health at work. These range from basic human rights such as the right to freedom of expression and freedom of association, to the health and safety legislation that keeps us safe from hazards, including psychological hazards.
Most people with on-going mental health problems meet the definition of disability in the Equality Act (2010) in England, Scotland and Wales and the Disability Discrimination Act (1995, as amended) in Northern Ireland. This means that people with mental health problems are protected from discrimination and harassment and are entitled to reasonable adjustments to adapt their job or work. To be considered disabled under equality legislation, a person must have an impairment that has “a substantial adverse, and long-term impact on their ability to carry out everyday tasks”.
The Equality Commission for Northern Irelands provides information about the different protections for people with mental health problems in Northern Ireland.
A disabled person is entitled to ask for reasonable adjustments to their job or workplace to accommodate their needs. Adjustments remove the barrier to the job that caused by mental health problems.
Examples of reasonable adjustments include:
- Changing a person’s work pattern to enable them to start later or finish earlier because of the side effects of medication or allowing them to travel the night before meetings and stay over to avoid early morning travel.
- Providing a person with a laptop, remote access software and permission to work at home on set days, or flexibly according to the severity of their symptoms (within a monthly limit).
- Excusing someone from attending work functions and client events, instead allowing them to set up alternative networking arrangements that achieve similar business returns.
Access to Work is a government funded scheme that can help to fund equipment, software, and other support if cost is a barrier to making reasonable adjustments.
As well as the duty to provide reasonable adjustments, the Equality Act and the Disability Discrimination Act also protect people from harassment. This means that employers have a duty to address bullying and discriminatory behaviours relating to mental health just as they would for other protected characteristics such as gender, sexual orientation, race or faith.
Who else can help?
Your employer may have an Employee Assistance Programme. These services are confidential and can be accessed for free. You may also be able to access occupational health support through your line manager or HR service.
The first port of call in the health service is your GP. Over a third of visits to GPs are about mental health. Your GP may suggest ways that you or your family can help you, or they may refer you to a specialist or another part of the health service. Your GP may be able to refer you to a counsellor.
For the most recently updated advice from the government on self-certification, sick leave, fit notes and the Statement of Fitness For Work then head to:
If you are experiencing a challenging employer/employee relationship the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) can help. All advice is free, and they offer guidance on all aspects of relations in the workplace:
The Health and Safety Executive is the national UK independent watchdog for work-related health, safety and illness:
Citizens Advice offers advice on all work-related matters. The advice is free and is made easy to understand on their clear, concise and very detailed website. However, if you prefer, you can talk via telephone. CA provides confidential guidance on employment law and your rights and responsibilities at work.
Fit for work is a government scheme in the UK, which offers access to expert occupational health professionals, via phone or website. Your GP or employer can refer you for a formal assessment and a Return to Work Plan if you have been on sick leave for more than four weeks. Find out more at: