Working with a psychiatric mental health condition: a letter to employers
In 2017, a survey of individuals in the UK found that only 26.2% of people who were “experiencing long term mental illness or phobias as their primary, or most significant, health issue” were in employment. As someone with a chronic psychiatric disorder, I find this figure both shocking and disheartening but I’m aware that the general population probably won’t.
As someone diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder and generalised anxiety disorder who is in employment, I can confidently say that this isn’t largely through choice of those with the disorders. Of course not everyone with a mental illness can manage to work even part-time. However I know that a large number want the chance to, but only if they were given the support and opportunities to do so. And it’s not just for the benefit of us as individuals: it’s for the benefit of the employers too.
While I might need additional support, flexibility, or even allowances in the workplace, what I give back is extremely valuable and unique.
Without trying to sound like a cover letter, some of the things I’m strong at – due to living with a mental illness – include empathy, creativity and certainly problem solving. That’s a big one when it comes to having to shoe-horn yourself into a world that isn’t designed for neurodivergent people. Other diagnosed friends I’ve asked have put forward their analytical natures, their unique perspective on ideas and situations, their drive to achieve; there is a whole host of us keen to bring these talents to a workplace.
It’s true there are times I need to take time out, and can’t be 100% at what is considered my best, but even when I’m not at my best I still bring value. I’m always passionate about what I’m doing, take pride in my work and I experience things much more deeply than others.
The government website states that local Job Centres are able to match job seekers with “disability-friendly” employers. That phrase doesn’t sit comfortably with me at all, like we’re something on the outside of society that needs to find someone who’ll accept us. Going into the world of work, being made to feel like we have to prove our worth from the start isn’t going to do much for our self-esteem, is it?
It’s amazing that the help is there and I wholeheartedly believe that the ability to work should be open to everyone equally, but just how prepared would an employer be to say yes to someone with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder? From others I’ve spoken to who’ve been through this scheme, it really isn’t fit for purpose. It felt, from their perspective, like a box-ticking exercise and really, the employers were only interested in the “right kind” of disability.
Do they really want someone with a mental illness that can’t be seen and still have a colossal amount of stigma surrounding them? Is that what employers are expecting when they put themselves forward as “friendly”? The stigma surrounding mental illness is still a huge problem, largely born out of misunderstanding and fear.
The latest government data shows that there are more people who are classed as disabled now, compared to the figures in 2017. The increase is largely driven by more people seeking help for mental health conditions, yet the disability employment rate is still lowest for individuals with these disabilities. So why are we being left behind when it comes to planning pathways into work?
Getting back into the workplace is an end goal for many, but we’ve also got to consider the ongoing support which is currently lacking in order to get many of us to the point we’re well enough to consider employment. It’s not just a case of being offered a job and taking it.
The jobseeker may have been out of work for a long time and re-adjusting to the world of work will be much more difficult for someone with a mental illness; specialist support should be offered. Then once employment starts, there will need to be the ability to handle a disability alongside a job and any difficulties which come with that role.
Work is just a part of life which is difficult for us with mental health conditions to manage without support from the health service. Largely reactive rather than preventative in how it operates, this current structure wouldn’t lend itself to keeping us in successful employment long-term, or even make being in a job role a fulfilling experience.
You might be thinking we should just not say anything about our disability when we’re applying for jobs. We don’t have to legally disclose it, do we? But personally I would always want to start from square one on the right foot. My disorder is a part of me and affects every aspect of my life; it’s not something I really can or want to hide. Of course that’s where the danger lies, by disclosing. There are still fears and stigmas in the minds of employers. Maybe they see us as too much work with little return on investment, or that we’re simply unreliable.
It would be impossible to really know the answer, but why can’t those employers who have good experiences of having bipolar or schizoaffective or even ADHD people on their payroll share their positive messages? Because we’re out there, we are working and we’re doing well. There are more of us than you may think (1 in 50 people in the UK are bipolar, for example) and we’re contributing with our unique input and bringing value to workplaces. We’re probably just doing such a good job that you didn’t even notice…but that’s the point of stigma.
We don’t want to have to hide our conditions, getting nervous about applications and disclosing a disability. We want to have the confidence to be upfront and honest, talking about our life experiences so both parties can be aware of any adjustments so we can both get the best out of each other. We want to be upfront so we can have the best relationship with our colleague.
So if you’re a company and you’re hiring, consider not just being “disability friendly”, but be open to talking about and accepting those of us being left behind.