Why Mental Health Should Never Hold You Back from a Good Job
We all have mental health. For most of us, it dips and rises from day-to-day, influenced by things like our family lives, our jobs, our social interactions and even our genetics.
The World Health Organisation estimates that one in four of us will experience some form of mental ill-health during our lifetime. According to ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), two-thirds of employees have already suffered from stress or anxiety in the past year. Yet, these figures are likely to be only the tip of the iceberg given they don’t include all those undisclosed mental health struggles so many of us deal with in the course of our working lives.
Feeling down, stressed or anxious is natural. It just means you’re human. And for nearly all of us there will be at least one period in our lives when these feelings are so overwhelming, they risk making us ill.
It is—to put it bluntly—plain crazy to think that experiencing some level of mental ill-health is unusual.
At the same time, the UK is facing a significant mental health crisis at work
So much that, in January 2017, the then Prime Minister Theresa May, commissioned a review of mental health in the workplace. Published later that year, Thriving at Work: The Stevenson/Farmer Review of Mental Health and Employers kicks off with this striking statement:
“We start from the position that the correct way to view mental health is that we all have it and we fluctuate between thriving, struggling and being ill and possibly off work. People with poor mental health including common mental health problems and severe mental illness can be in any of these groups. An individual can have a serious mental health problem but—with the right support—can still be thriving at work.”
So, at the highest level of Government, there’s an acknowledgement that your mental health shouldn’t hinder you at work and that there’s a responsibility for employers to remove the stigma that surrounds mental health, and to provide the appropriate support.
Many employers are already creating healthy, inclusive workplaces, but more needs to be done so that employers provide the support needed for employees with mental health conditions.
Prime Minister Theresa May, January 2017
What the law says about mental health at work
However, the key thing to know here is that you must be prepared to show that your mental health is a disability to have it covered by the Equality Act.
And, you may or may not want to do this—it really depends on how you view your health, the nature of your job and your own personal circumstances. But, if you think you’re being discriminated against at work because of a mental health problem, then you should find out if it could count as a ‘disability’ so that you can find protection under this Act.
The MIND site is brilliantly useful here. It explains what could constitute a disability and gives step-by-step advice on how the Equality Act can protect you at work—so, go there first.
What about applying for jobs?
Generally, employers can’t ask you questions about your mental health before offering you a job. If they do, then you can report this to the Equality Advice and Support Service.
There are some exceptions. For example, to find out if you can do tasks central to the job; for national security reasons; for diversity monitoring, that’s appropriately secure. But in most cases, you shouldn’t be asked about your mental health when applying for a job. For most jobs and in most circumstances, it would be unlawful.
There are also a number of organisations, especially mental health charities, where personal experience of a mental health issue is seen as an advantage in candidates. For at least some of their roles, they’re actively looking for people who have lived experience; who can connect with beneficiaries on a real and personal level because of a shared understanding. As shown by the following, taken from a recent job spec on the Mind site:
“A strong understanding of mental health problems – be that through personal experience, or previous job role – would be highly desirable.”
The Advocacy Project, a London-based charity that helps marginalised communities, is also an organisation that benefits from lived experience and so actively promotes this on their site:
“40% of staff and 50% of trustees have lived experience of the issues we work on – things like mental health, learning disabilities and dementia. This gives us authenticity and builds trust with service users which enables us to get to the nub of their issues.”
And even if they don’t actively ask for personal experience of a mental health problem, there are still many charities who make it a priority to support their staff’s mental health and wellbeing in the employee benefits they provide. For example, the Great Ormond Street Hospital Charity has a really enlightened policy in this respect, including complimentary membership to the Headspace app for all employees.
But, how do you decide whether to tell your employer?
Firstly, you don’t need to—unless you want protection under the Equality Act (and are prepared to have it assessed as a disability).
If you do decide to tell your employer, then think about how to do it, when to do it—and how much you want to say.
Who’s the best person to speak to? It may be that you’re better off going to HR rather than your manager. Also, don’t feel obligated to tell everything—focus on the impact your mental health problem has on your ability to do your job. That’s what it’s all about; whether or not it affects your job.
What if your mental health is a disability and it has an impact on your job?
If your mental health problem is a disability—and there’s a feature of your work which could (or is) causing you major disadvantage because of this disability—then your employer is under a duty to make adjustments to avoid that disadvantage.
Examples of the kind of adjustments your employer could make, include:
- Changes to your working area
- Changes to your hours
- Spending time working from home
- Time off work for treatment, assessment or rehabilitation
- Temporarily reallocating tasks
What if you worry about your mental health at work, but it’s not a disability?
So many, many people will feel like this.
It’s incredibly common to have had periods in your life when work, or your personal life, has got on top of you. Or to suffer at times, from depression and anxiety—and worry that if it happens again, you’ll not be able to cope with a good, or potentially more stressful, job.
You’re in no way alone in thinking like this. Fortunately, in recent years, there’s been a huge increase in discussion and understanding around mental health issues—and how to care for your mental health at work, in particular. The stigma surrounding just talking about mental health is less than it once was—although, of course, there’s more to be done.
In September this year, Personnel Today reported on a record number of staff receiving mental health training at work, and Government initiatives like the 2017 Government Report show how supporting mental health in the workplace is now a priority for employers. Or, should be.
Organisations like ACAS have lots of advice for employers and employees, as does Mental Health at Work, along with charities like MIND, Time To Change, Heads Together, The Advocacy Project, among others. And there’s a long list of organisations that have signed up to the national Mindful Employer Charter.
There’s a wealth of free information available online on how to protect your mental health and build resilience; key strategies and habits that can shore up your mental well-being so that you have the confidence and skills set to cope better when life becomes stressful.
It shouldn’t stop you going for that job.
And if you need more inspiration, just look at the numerous high-achieving people who now talk openly about their battles with mental health. From Bruce Springsteen to Alastair Campbell, from Fearne Cotton to Stephen Fry. We all have mental health and we all have a responsibility to ourselves to look after it—while also not letting it stop us from achieving the job, or the life, we want.