When first asked by the Institute of Directors to share my experiences of mental health in the workplace, my initial thought was: this is a great opportunity to raise awareness of mental health. However, what quickly followed was the fear that this could destroy my professional reputation. I was worried about the associated “stigma” if I was to be open about my illness. Would my colleagues and clients still want to work with me, employ me, buy my services if they knew that I’m mentally ill? This brutally brought home to me that the stigma surrounding mental health urgently needs tackling, so that more of us feel comfortable to come forward and raise awareness of this important issue.
I’m essentially a normal person. I’m a husband, a father and professionally successful. What most people don’t know is that I’m also bipolar and will have to take anti-psychotic tablets every day for the rest of my life.
This is because at one stage my illness became so severe that I was almost sectioned for walking down the middle of a major road in the face of oncoming traffic, babbling about secret messages being transmitted through petrol stations.
The reason people in my professional network don’t know this is because I conceal it from them.
In stark contrast, I also need lifelong medication for asthma; however I will happily take out my inhaler and use it in front of them. But as for my other health problem - manic depression - I have revealed it to nobody.
I remember once having to present to a client whilst heavily medicated during a psychotic episode. I opened by telling them I wasn’t slurring my words and staggering because I was drunk but because I was on anti-epileptic tablets, which also happen to be used as mood stabilisers. I ended the explanation there, hoping they would infer that the anti-epileptic drugs were for a physical health condition not a mental one.
Despite having formed so many positive relationships with former colleagues and clients, I still fear deep down that this could all be overshadowed by my mental illness. This all comes back down to that horrible word: stigma.
But why does this stigma exist? Why do even minor mental health problems cause individuals to suffer in silence due to fear of how they will be perceived?
Despite well-meaning people who say that a mental health condition should be thought of no differently from a physical one, this is not always a reality in practice. And this impossibility to approach people with mental and physical illnesses in the same way is what can actually cause stigma. Not changing how you perceive someone on a psychological level after witnessing them becoming severely breathless due to a physical condition like an asthma attack is often easier than after witnessing the same physical reaction as a result of a mental health condition like a panic attack.
In an effort to prevent an employee having another panic attack, a well-meaning employer might reconsider handing them that important and exciting assignment, thereby treating the person differently once they become aware that they are mentally ill. In turn, the person who is mentally ill may anticipate this and – out of fear that their colleagues won’t have the same level of trust and confidence in their abilities - try to conceal it.
Let’s be clear: regardless of an employee fearing it, differential treatment of someone who is having a mental health crisis is a good thing, but it’s all about timing. Obviously you don’t want to overburden someone once you discover they are having difficulties, but it’s important to understand that many mental health conditions like anxiety, depression and bipolar are often episodic. This means that the person in question - when stable and properly medicated - may be like any other completely healthy person for prolonged periods of time. Therefore, it’s important to make adjustments when the individual needs it, but have full confidence in them and treat them no differently from anybody else when they are well. If it becomes widely accepted that the majority of people with mental health issues are just as capable when they are well as anyone else, we will reduce the stigma surrounding them even when they are feeling ill.
In order to make a real difference in how we manage mental health in the workplace, we need to properly educate ourselves and foster a company culture where mental health is brought out into the open.
Don’t be reactive and wait until you discover a mental health concern in your team. Be proactive and educate your employees now and have a plan in place to deal with problems before they arise. Mental health costs companies billions in lost productivity, so making a small investment in education now could pay emotional and financial dividends for years to come.
Rob Fitton is Founder & Head of Software Development for Appetra and an IoD Member.
Throughout Mental Health Awareness Week (13th - 19th May 2019) and beyond, the IoD will be featuring stories from our members relating to mental health as part of the #alittlemoreconversation campaign. Track the campaign via the dedicated mental health hub and the IoD's social media channels.
Return to the IoD Mental Health hub