Speaking out about mental illness and my experiences is hard! I’ve just found how difficult it is to speak out while writing this blog. I have had four psychotic episodes over the past ten years and have experienced depression and anxiety. I have worked pretty much the whole time in different workplaces and contexts.
I have found that experiences at work often really depend upon your line manager and the relationship you have with them. I currently work at a London university and really enjoy my job. I’ve been honest with my line manager about my experiences and she has been extremely supportive and understanding. I had two psychotic episodes last year and she gave me space and support at a time when I was vulnerable.
Having a good relationship with your line manager is not always as easy as all that! I’ve had a lot of different experiences along the way, not all good. I have experienced stigma and on one occasion fear from an employer. This is where the difficulty of speaking out comes in. I found, when writing about it, that I didn’t want to go into detail about it. Why? Because the situation was between me and the line manager, there were others in that work place whom I got on very well with, I don’t want to write negatively about it now.
When I was writing about it, I started blaming myself and that is a real problem with mental illness. It’s all too easy to feel it’s your fault that a job isn’t working out. It often feels like you’re the one with the problem. When actually the problem is your employer not knowing enough about managing someone who has experienced mental illness. In order for those of us who have experienced mental illness to be supported in the workplace there needs to be training and information available in order to promote greater understanding from employers. I have found the best type of relationship with your line manager is based on trust and understanding. I’ve been very lucky to experience this from my current line manager, and others. But in these cases it relied upon their own personality and natural affinity with people. This isn’t enough. Line managers need to have more information in order to manage people who have had mental health experiences well.
There also needs to be an atmosphere in which the employee can feel able to ask for reasonable adjustments. Legally this is the right of those with a disability, but in reality I’ve found they are incredibly difficult to ask for. You feel you should be able to just ‘get on’ with your job and often at work there is an atmosphere perpetuating this feeling.
At my current work I have a card system whereby if I'm feeling anxious and over stressed I put out a card to signal this to the team, so I can get on with things quietly. If I need to take a break because of the stress I put out another card. It's a way of communicating without having to find the words to explain and it works really well. I actually find I don't use it much because just knowing the means of communication is there is a confidence boost. So reasonable adjustments don't have to be big or taxing for either the employer or employee.
For me, I’ve found that if I’m honest about my experiences with my line manager at the beginning of a relationship, that has paved the way for a deepening of the relationship and for trust to be established. I don’t mean I’ve gone into huge detail about my experiences. But I’ve mentioned the word ‘psychotic episodes’ and said ‘it sounds scary but isn’t, I manage it.’ Then I’ve got on with my job. It can also be helpful if your line manager feels confident enough to let you just get on with things. There’s nothing worse than feeling you’re being watched all the time, or assessed. I’ve found it can really break your confidence and affect your ability to do your job well.
I have experienced stigma at work in the past, which really affected me and my confidence. However, I continued to work, and found a job that gave me a better work-life balance with a great team who are supportive. It really is possible to find supportive work. But this shouldn’t rely upon the understanding nature of some people’s personalities. All line managers should be made aware of their responsibilities and of the legal rights of employees with regard to reasonable adjustments. And they should be encouraged to listen to and trust their employees.
People want to be able to do a good job. Let’s encourage a working environment that allows that to happen.
The image was sourced from dcarrero's Flickr account under a Creative Commons 2.0 License.