One of the most prevalent topics in the mental health community seems to be stigma around mental health in the workplace. I’ve heard stories of people being told to deal with it; that they need to grow up; that their panic attacks wouldn’t happen to normal people; that they need to get a grip, and many, many other stories that show just how little people know or care about mental illnesses.
A few weeks ago I attended an interview for a waitressing position. Despite my bad anxiety and depression, I was determined to make it work because, let’s face it, the economy is shit, and I need a job. The interview, a 1-1 with a lovely woman, went brilliantly, and I was invited back for a work trial during their evening dinner rush with two others trying out for similar roles. Each of us was shadowed by a supervisor, and the restaurant manager watched us throughout the trial. At the end he took each of us aside one by one to give us feedback before sending us home. I was called in last, and these were his exact words: “I was really concerned about you. You were terrified, it was making the customers tense”.
I was shocked. Yes, I had been absolutely terrified of the work trial, but I managed to speak; I took orders; I did everything I was asked with a smile on my face. I knew my anxiety was visible, but I hadn’t realised just how much. To say that the customers were on edge because of how I was feeling was a kick to the stomach. One of the few reassurances throughout my struggles with anxiety, was that it wasn’t easily noticeable by the average person. People are so distracted by their own lives, they wouldn’t notice that you’re feeling particularly anxious about something. But they did notice. I, obviously, didn’t get the job.
Many other people I’ve spoken to have had similar experiences: Bosses, managers, supervisors, and co-workers who don’t understand mental illness, don’t understand how it manifests, and treat the sufferer, quite frankly, like they’re overreacting and not capable of doing the job. This is why I suggested, in a twitter chat several weeks ago, that workplaces should be much more accepting of mental illness. Just as they include a disclaimer in an application- stating that they don’t discriminate based on age, gender, and so forth- they should include some form of reassurance about their treatment of those with mental illnesses.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are jobs out there that some of us can’t do, due to our illnesses. But for many of us, it is the treatment from co-workers, rather than the work itself, that stops us. I recently began volunteering with my local branch of Mind, and one of the things that keeps cropping up is the idea of a mental health supporter within workplaces. Just as every workplace needs a first-aid qualified staff member on duty at all times, they should also have somebody who has been trained in how to deal with mental illness. This would be a lifeline for those who are prone to, for example, panic attacks halfway through a shift.
Workplaces and business, in general, should follow strict guidelines that, when followed and/or completed, give them accreditation as being somewhere safe for mental health sufferers to work. This doesn’t seem, to me, to be a big ask, but considering the stories I’ve heard from those who have discovered how little their managers care about their well-being, I’m not holding my breath that any big changes will be take place soon.