Do employers know what mental illness stigma actually is?

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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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5 things never to say to an unemployed graduate

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Unemployed graduates are a resilient lot. They can put up with being scapegoated in the media, treated like idiots by job centre staff and staying up until 2am every morning applying for jobs as street fundraisers and asbestos surveyors because they’ve run flat out of ideas. Just don’t ask them to listen to any of the following things…

1. “You interviewed well but others had more experience.”

Said by: Potential employers

For the last time, they know. They’re aware that they haven’t been alive as long as the other people you’ve interviewed. Time travel, gateways to other dimensions or weird Benjamin Button-style ageing disorders aside, there’s really nothing they can do about the fact that the 40-year-old unemployed executive you invited to interview right before them had been on this planet longer. If you have to make the decision based on the length of experience of the candidates, then please lie when you tell the graduates.

What to say instead: “We were looking for someone with a more specific skillset and another candidate was a more direct fit.”

2. “Can’t you just go and live with your parents?”

Said by: Careers advisors, job centre staff members, university support workers, friends of the family

Because Mum and Dad are always absolutely thrilled when their offspring turn up on their doorstep after university, bags at their feet (and even bigger ones under their eyes). I actually had someone say this to me halfway through being let go from a job at a shop and I nearly laughed out loud. It might make you feel better to think that all graduates have got their old rooms still waiting for them, but it’s rarely as simple as that. Relocation, divorce, younger siblings, or the parents just plain not wanting their offspring back can all play a part. Unless you’re willing to pack up your stuff and surprise your own parents/ex-partner/kids by moving in, I wouldn’t suggest it to a graduate.

What to say instead: “It sounds like you’re having a really tough time at the moment. Can your family help you at all?”

3. “It’s no big deal, you’ll find a job in no time.”

Said by: Parents, careers advisors, university support workers, older members of the family

Back in the 1970s, you may well have been able to walk out of one job at lunchtime and land another before dinner but (unless you’ve been living with your head in a bucket for the past five years) you’ll know things aren’t like that anymore. The brightest and best graduates are clubbing each other over the head for the chance of a part-time job in Tesco (that is, if they’re not working for free as an intern to prove they’re worth being paid minimum wage after six months of making coffee for people). The harsh fact is if you’re an unemployed graduate, settle in. It could well be months or even a year before you find work that you actually want.

What to say instead: “You’re doing really well to keep making all of those applications – I know it’s frustrating, but you will find something.”

4. “When I was your age…”

Said by: Potentially anyone over the age of 35

The fact is, you’re not their age anymore. You’re just not. You’ve moved on to a stage of life where (unless you’ve been very unlucky) certain things are not in question. Your professional status, for example. Or where you’ll be living in six months’ time. Whether you’re bemoaning how dreadful everything is for young people at the moment or trying to get a graduate to buck up their ideas because you managed to when you were young, it’s best to just let it go. Graduates don’t want your sympathy – they want your respect. And they need your help.

What to say instead: “I’m sorry things are so hard for you. When you are my age, things will be better.”

5. “I’m having such a nightmare having a new kitchen fitted/renting out my house/planning an unbelievably expensive holiday…”

Said by: Parents, friends of parents, anyone over the age of 35

A silent rule has now passed which decrees that if your problem concerns the fact that you have money, you are not allowed to complain about it. End of. Such conversations should be limited to hushed discussions among people who you know for a fact earn the same amount or more than you. Forbidden topics include: new outfits, holidays, meals out, home improvements, cars and second homes. As soon as you start talking about any of these things, graduates start wanting to throw something heavy at your head. As a guideline, if your conversation is beginning to sound like the Life & Style section of the Guardian, halt it immediately.

What to say instead: “I found a great bargain at a charity shop the other day…”

 

Being Young Stinks: Employer Discrimination

Continuing the stream of disillusionment and grumpiness which makes up my blog, here is a rant about youth unemployment. It’s interspersed with Simpsons pics for the hell of it, from the good people at www.simpsoncrazy.com. Enjoy!

I got rejected for a job the other day and I was actually glad. Not because I didn’t want the job (I’m doing all right as a freelancer, but it still would have been great to get some extra cash), but because there was actually a legitimate reason for my rejection. There were certain things in the job description that the right candidate would need to be comfortable with doing, and I didn’t know how to do them. They were quite specific things, requiring in-depth knowledge about how to manage a web server, and I can’t say with confidence that given the chance I would have picked up the skills in no time. I interviewed fine and they seemed to like me, but they really needed someone with a different set of skills. Rejection old school style!

Homer Simpson

The reason I’m feeling all right about this is because, as a young person with a couple of years of work experience and a degree, I find myself getting to interview stage often but just missing the cut for the jobs. The reason I’m given, time after time, is that I interviewed very well, however there was another candidate with more experience, or perhaps several years of doing exactly the same job. This is the sort of rejection I’m used to, the sort of rejection which sounds very reasonable, but in practice is anything but. Here are some reasons why.

 

1. It indirectly inconveniences jobseekers who are below a certain age

Lisa Simpson

Being told you don’t have enough experience to do a particular job would be fine if we weren’t once again in a recession, and the people in charge of running this country seem determined to run it straight into the ground. There are less jobs and more people going for them, which means that, every time I apply for a job, I am guaranteed to be up against people with decades of experience on me. I’m 24, therefore I can’t compete. Even with a work history dating back to around the time of my 16th birthday, I cannot reasonably be expected to hold my own against someone who had a head start in the job market by not being born in the 1980s. And yet this is exactly what I am expected to do, again and again and again. The fact that most employers pick prior experience over talent, intelligence, intuition or natural aptitude is indirect discrimination against young people. There simply isn’t anything we can do about the fact that we haven’t been alive as long as the people older than us.

2. Experience does not necessarily qualify someone to do a particular job

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OK, I can see how people advertising a certain job will warm to someone who has had exactly that job title for a five year stretch prior to applying. But experience shouldn’t always swing the decision – it’s not a surefire way to get the person who’ll be best at the job. Case in point: the most experience I have in the job market is as a retail sales assistant (from the age of 16 to 22). I am not a good sales assistant. I’m not a bad sales assisant either, but having all those years of “experience” did not transform me into a model employee. If I were to go for a retail position now, then I’d be far more likely to get the job than someone who only has a few months of experience. Does that make me the best person for the job? Hell no!

For a lot of the jobs I go for (mainly admin positions, entry level and just above), it really doesn’t take long to train someone in how to do them. There are a lot of companies looking for someone who can “hit the ground running”, but as far as I’m concerned, unless you’ve worked for a particular company before, no one can do that. It isn’t fair to discount someone purely on the basis that someone else has worked in a similar position for longer. Who knows – the filing system at their previous job might have been completely different causing them to have a catastrophic mental breakdown before their first day is even over…

3. It’s selfish

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I’m serious, it is. Graduates and young people have been told over and over again to adapt to the changes in the economic climate (changes we had nothing to do with…). Get more experience, do a course, volunteer, update your CV, apply for more jobs, no, more than that, MORE THAN THAT, chase them up, sit on hold for half an hour a day, go to interview workshops, abandon your chosen career path altogether, don’t be selfish/lazy/entitled, there’s a recession on YA KNOW!

I’m sick of being told that as a young person I must adapt and change and sometimes completely give up on my plans because of the current situation, while businesses can get away with stubbornly dismissing me as a capable worker because of my age. And while I have a lot of sympathy for business owners who are scrabbling around trying to make ends meet, I can’t reconcile the fact that at least they had a chance to make something of themselves. What chance have young people got now when company owners are basically ignoring them from the word go? We don’t get hired for the jobs, so we can’t get experience. Because we don’t have any experience, we get left out of even more opportunities. We’re affected the worst by ‘last in, first out’ firing policies and the jobs which are predominently occupied by us (entry level positions) are terminated. The fact that so many businesses have adopted these practices as hasty survival tactics has effectively eliminated a generation from the job market. This needs to be stopped.

Bart Simpson

Many people might be thinking that maybe I just interview badly, or the other candidates are just better than me generally. In the last year, although I haven’t had many interviews for all the jobs I’ve applied for, the feedback remains consistent: it’s experience holding me back. When I ask the employer to elaborate, they never say anything else. I interview fine, I’m told. I would have no trouble performing the job. However, considering the huge number of applicants, it was decided that the job should go to someone with more experience. This is what swings the vote every time, without fail.

I really wish that businesses would adopt a positive approach to young people who apply for their jobs and take into account the fact that discrimination can be indirect as well as direct. It’s not our fault we’re young, we shouldn’t automatically be dubbed as feckless because of our ages, and we deserve more opportunities than working for free in Tesco (if you can call that an opportunity…). Business owners: the next time you reject a young person on the grounds of experience, remember that they will have heard the same thing over and over again. If you can’t give them a legitimate reason, just make something up – tell them they wore an awful tie to the interview, or that you can’t have another staff member called Stephanie. It’ll at least be more interesting.

Lisa Simpson

“Not me, guv”: Workfare Providers Defend Their Actions

 

Hurrah for Twitter debates and all their time-consuming wonder! I’ve had an informative old time discussing workfare again and I’ve decided to respond to some of the reasoning provided by actual live workfare company owners, defending their right to employ people for free. Most of these lines came from one person, who ended up solely providing me with an entire blog post (cheers!). Enjoy!

 

I have workfare staff and they don’t feel exploited

I don’t want to make any extreme comparisons here, but plenty of people stay in undesirable circumstances because they feel they have no choice. This is not a good thing. Given the choice between an unpaid placement and a paid placement, I think only a masochist would opt for the former. What we’re seeing at the moment is not only an increase in people who believe they have to take unpaid placements in their chosen career path because there’s no chance of them being offered work otherwise, but also an increase in people who believe they have to take unpaid placements anywhere because there’s no chance of them getting any form of paid work. Both scenarios are unacceptable.

By participating in workfare, you may not be directly exploiting anyone but you are definitely indirectly contributing to exploitation across the country. Companies which have access to workfare participants have no incentive to offer paid work, and often don’t. This is exploitation and it’s how workfare operates.

Also, just because someone doesn’t currently feel they’re being exploited doesn’t mean they won’t after several months of unpaid work, or after they realise that one unpaid placement may just lead to another as workfare doesn’t create employment.

 

I’ve taken on all of my workfare staff and they are now being paid a living wage

I’m always really confused by workfare providers who smugly inform me that they have created jobs for unemployed people by taking on their workfare staff as employees. As far as I’m concerned, you’ve taken someone on as soon as they’ve begun working for you and not paying them at that point is unacceptable. If someone is being paid after two/three/six months of working for free, they are simply getting what’s due. This is not cause for celebration.

Workfare providers often wheel out excuses along the lines of training periods and trial runs, but I’m still not convinced. If you don’t think someone’s worth paying for a job you need doing, then chances are you shouldn’t hire them in the first place. If you do think someone’s worth paying, it’s unacceptable to demand months of free labour from them first.

 

Through workfare, I am giving unemployed people a chance/opportunity to learn

“Giving people a chance” seems to be the name of the game at the moment – which begs the question, what chance has someone got on no wage? Unpaid work is not a “chance” or an “opportunity”. A job is.

Paid jobs (as in actual proper jobs, like wot we all used to aspire to) have things called trial, or probationary periods, where the staff member is paid a proper wage and treated the same as other staff members. During this time, they may be subject to frequent reviews and their contract will not yet have been made permanent. Why now have the goalposts shifted to the point where an employer feels perfectly justified not paying a staff member who is effectively on their probationary period on the grounds that they are “giving them a chance”?

Not only is it insulting to suggest that unemployed people ought to be grateful for the “chance” to complete unpaid work, it simply isn’t true. An “opportunity” is free training, separate to work. An “opportunity” is money available for people to buy smart clothes to attend interviews. An “opportunity” is a CV building workshop, or free career advice, or a social group to keep your spirits up while applying for hundreds of jobs. An “opportunity” is an interview. An “opportunity” is a job. An unpaid job is an unpaid job.

 

I run a small business and cannot afford to pay staff

Then don’t hire them. It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for small businesses – times are tough for everyone – and I’d much rather go after the big companies like Asda and Tesco who make billions of pounds in profit and still feel justified not paying their checkout staff. However, just because you’re a small company does not mean you are justified in gaining from unpaid labour. Wanting to expand your business is a reasonable goal, and it must be very frustrating for anyone who has had to put this off, year on year, because of falling profits and rising costs. However, no matter how frustrating it is for a business owner, it’s nothing compared to being unemployed and trapped in the cycle of unpaid work placements at the threat of benefit sanctions. Until workfare is made fair (and I have a feeling it’ll be a long time yet) nobody is justified in benefitting from it.

 

I’ve actually lost money from taking on workfare staff so I can’t be benefitting from it

It’s regrettable that anyone who genuinely wants to make a difference usually ends up bearing the brunt of the cost, and it’s true that many workfare providers may honestly want to help the unemployed. However, workfare as it is isn’t the way to do this. Even if you’re putting hours of time and oodles of cash into your placements, it doesn’t make the schemes any less deplorable. People should not be made to work for free, for any length of time. Even if you’ve made your schemes as easy and relaxed as can be, it’s still unpaid labour. And, if anyone who has initially participated voluntarily decides that your company isn’t for them, they can still be easily referred to Mandatory Work Activity which will see them shunted into another company with the threat of losing their benefits. By participating in workfare, you are perpetuating this cycle which has left many unemployed people miserable, destitute and desperate.

 

But I take the team out go karting and paint-balling, I CAN’T BE EVIL

Er, good for you. But not even free laser quest would convince me that I didn’t have a right to be paid for my work, for any length of time.

And that’s laser quest. Think about it.

Caught in a “Positive Spin”: Lying About Your Mental Health

I don’t know what it is about mental illness in particular that means that, not only do you have to live with the damn thing, but you also have to spend about half of your time lying about it. Oh, sorry. Not lying, just putting a “positive spin” on it. You know, so that no one will think you’re actually crazy, or anything…

 

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told by someone not to divulge too much about my health, in case it stops me from being accepted. It’s usually when I’m entering a new professional setting, such as a job or a volunteer placement. Ironically, it’s in these environments that it’s very, very important to me to know that I’m going to be accepted and supported, illness or no illness, otherwise it’s going to be very difficult for me to stay in that environment anyway. Not telling someone about a health condition doesn’t make that health condition go away. Neither does putting a positive spin on something which is not a positive thing in the slightest. Even if you do manage to convince a potential employer that “it’s OK, I’m not that bad, really”, how are they going to react if a bad day should come along? They’re only going to be confused and irritated because you said you were basically fine.

 

The worst thing about depression is all that hair-clutching you have to do

 

I’m sick to the back teeth of having to come up with all these fairy stories about my health in order to fit in and not cause too much of a problem for other people. If I had a health condition like asthma or diabetes, I’d never dream of lying about it to a potential employer. For one thing, it’d be irresponsible (if something were to happen to me, the people around me would definitely need to know what was going on), and for another I simply wouldn’t have to. There just isn’t the stigma involved. There wouldn’t be any pen-fiddling, or awkward looks or “I’m not sure we can support you here…” type comments. It’d just be accepted as something I have to live with.

 

The fact is, in an environment where people are understanding and supportive, my depression affects me about as much as the flu or stomach bugs might affect the rest of the staff (ie the occasional day here or there where you might have to call in sick or you won’t be at your best in the workplace). But that’s in a truly supportive environment. In a place where people really don’t understand, I might have to put up with whispering, back-biting, people giving me a wide berth (because they don’t want to catch the crazy), people ignoring me, or not making an effort to talk to me as much as the other members of staff. All of those things have an enormous effect on my health, which means that there might be an increase of times where I feel awful, can’t make it in, or simply can’t do my job properly while I’m at work. Then, of course, management make the judgment that I really am incompetent, rather than just dealing with a difficult environment which is having a detrimental effect on my health. And after that, it’s not long before I’m shown the door.

 

The door I can't even make it through because I'm too depressed, apparently

 

Some people might say, “Well, if you just don’t tell them, then the whispering and back-biting wouldn’t start in the first place.” Not true. Even in situations where I haven’t said a word about my health, all it takes is one lousy day for people to start cottoning on to the fact that I might have a health condition. Or they might just assume I’m useless, or lazy, or just doing it for attention, because I haven’t been honest. All of which contributes to a toxic environment, without me having to say a word about my health. Plus if things ever got really bad (as they have occasionally), my manager may then turn around and say, “Well, why weren’t you honest in the first place? We might have been able to help you.” It’s a situation where you feel damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But what really annoys me is when people who are supposed to be on my side (friends, family, even health professionals) start giving me little pep talks about what I should and shouldn’t say before I’ve even set foot in a new workplace.

 

Some people advise me not to use the word “depression”. Some people say I shouldn’t mention any days off I’ve had because of it. Some people tell me I shouldn’t say anything at all (possibly because they’ve assumed that as I can obtain a job interview at all, I haven’t got anything to complain about anyway). I was once advised by an employment agency who work specifically with people with disabilities that I should only say my depression is “mild” when talking about it, I guess because that conjures up nice images of “just feeling a bit blue” rather than being a total debilitated wreck who can’t string a sentence together (as occasionally I am). These were people who I thought would want to challenge stigma surrounding disabled people in the workplace, but everything once again had to be watered down and sanitized for the wider world. They worked on the principle of “we understand, but no one else will, so hush up.”

"To other people, you will only ever look like this."

 

I know that when I receive these pep talks, these people aren’t being malicious, they’re simply trying to protect me. They know, as well as I do, that people can be very judgmental and uncomprehending when it comes to mental health problems and by being honest I may be inadvertently creating a negative impression of myself before I’ve had a chance to show what I can do. But I disagree that I should have to hush up in order to make things better for myself. Living with depression isn’t something to be ashamed of, it’s just an irritating factor that unfortunately I need to take into consideration. It doesn’t make me any less capable overall, it just means sometimes I may not be at my best and I need the people around me to understand that. Because then the times where I will be at my best will radically increase.

 

I believe that by keeping quiet or putting a “positive spin” on things, I’m simply adding to the problem. This doesn’t encourage anyone to understand mental illness, it just means I’ll have played along with someone else’s rules for my own gain (which will probably blow up in my face anyway). I’ll still be ill, and I’ll still be working for someone who not only doesn’t understand, but now doesn’t have the inclination to try and understand either because I’ve essentially shoved myself into a box for their benefit. It means I’ll be exhausted from trying to put a brave face on everything, as well as adding to the common misconception that having depression means you’re weak or incapable. Feeling like I can “own” my experience, by being honest about the extent to which it affects me (no more, no less), is an important part of getting better. I hope that this will mean I end up working with better people as a result.