Do employers know what mental illness stigma actually is?


In some job interviews, when I’ve chosen to be honest about having depression, I’ve been peppered with questions about how well I cope under pressure. Am I likely to crack in a difficult situation? How well do I deal with confrontation? I must understand, of course, that it’s not that they have a problem with me having depression, it’s that there’s work to be done and they can’t have some babbling loony needing to be looked after while everyone else picks up the slack. We saw a campaign by Mind about stigma in the workplace – very cute! – but this is the real world so it’s time to buck up or get lost.

Again and again, employers show that they still believe that if you have a mental health problem you must be a certain type of person. Either you’re weak or unreliable or oversensitive or perhaps you just give off a vibe. Maybe you might be contagious and infect other staff members – if we have one staff member wanting “special treatment”, they’ll all want it! Or maybe your condition is too complicated to understand and it’d just plain be easier not to bother hiring you.

It doesn’t matter how many articles they’ve read or campaigns they’ve seen trying to explain the problem of stigma. They still think they’re being totally fair and reasonable when they reject a person with depression or anxiety or Bipolar over another candidate who has never suffered with mental health problems. We’re a small company, we don’t have the time or resources to put any support in place, things move very quickly here, we need people who can keep up. They tell themselves fairy stories about how much better off a person with mental health problems will be in a different workplace, one which is more understanding and inclusive, not realising that these places are few and far between and it just isn’t fair to expect people to have to work extra hard to seek them out.

The only difference between a workplace which can accommodate people with mental health problems and one which can’t is the beliefs of the people in charge. If employers believe it’s a waste of time or that people with mental health issues haven’t got anything to offer or that it’ll be too complicated, then they’ll ensure that nothing changes. The really infuriating thing about this is that it really doesn’t take much to make a more inclusive workplace and employers actually don’t have to sacrifice much at all (save for some outdated beliefs).

It does make me angry how many work situations I’ve been in which wouldn’t have been half as difficult if I’d received a little kindness and understanding. It doesn’t take a lot to show a bit of compassion – sometimes it’s literally the time it takes to boil a kettle – but even that is apparently too much for people to handle.

It could be that it’s a problem with workplaces in general. In Mind’s document on HR policies for people with mental health problems, one ‘reasonable adjustment’ suggested for a person with anxiety is that their boss says thank you to them after they complete tasks and ‘Good morning’ to them in the morning! I know from experience how unpleasant it is to be repeatedly ignored or left without acknowledgement for the work I’ve completed. If this is the standard set by the majority of workplaces, it’s no wonder that people with mental health problems are struggling to cope. A healthy person may well find themselves struggling too.

Thanks to the work of charities such as Mind, there are plenty of resources available to workplaces looking to change things for the better. The problem as I see it is getting the work done on the ground because too many people are assuming that it’s not necessary – if they can just avoid taking on anyone with those kind of problems, they won’t have to think about it. This is unacceptable and – particularly in this current competitive job market – more needs to be done.

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