Guest Post: Working With a Mental Illness

I was recently lucky to have my Disability Living Allowance claim renewed, but am presently in the position where the Social Security Agency are forcing upon me another claim for Employment and Support Allowance.  This is to my chagrin as they only recently granted me my proper allocation to the ‘Support Group’.  Alas.

Bearing this plus the current winds of change that seem likely to be made to social security laws and eligibility for benefits, I’ve been panicking about what’s going to become of me in the next few years.  Will I be granted the benefits that I need, and to which I am entitled?  Will I be denied them, but manage to survive through sponging off Mum and A?  Will I have to kill myself?  Or, with continued therapy / counselling (from wherever that may be) in conjunction with medication, will I be able to return to work before my benefits are ripped away from me?

I don’t know the answers and only time will tell.  However, I did wonder what others might have to say on the topic of benefits and/or working and mental illness, and asked my Twitter followers if anyone who had views and/or experience in this arena would like to write a guest post for Confessions.

I was delighted when Kevin Friery, @therapeutic1, offered to do the honours on working with a mental health problem.  Here is his very interesting article 🙂

Introduction

There is a fascinating social survey that for some reason is not widely quoted in the media. Examining and quantifying Psychiatric Morbidity in England, it was published in 2009. Whilst acknowledging that it only looks at England, it still tells an amazing story. Three quick facts: In any week, 16% of the adult population experience common mental disorders, half of whom would benefit from treatment, yet only a third of the treatable group get any help. Four adults in a thousand have a severe mental illness in any one year. Finally – over 30% of male adults (and 16% of women) drink to a hazardous level in any one week. It is a very interesting read and can be downloaded for free here.

My Story

I work for a living.

Perhaps nothing unusual in that, except that if you are one of the adults with Mental Health problems in the UK you are far less likely to be in the same position. Disadvantaged in terms of employment, housing, benefits and opportunity, people with an enduring mental illness can often find themselves severely marginalised. It was partly because of this that I decided with my employer to become involved in support for people at work who have a mental illness. There are a number of organisations trying their hardest to create opportunities for entry to the job market, but what about those who have a job and are keen to thrive in the world of work? What about the people who haven’t told their employer that they have a mental illness, and go to extraordinary lengths to keep that fact secret? These people often have nowhere to turn. This may now get even worse with the scrapping of Pre-Employment questionnaires; scrapped because they could be discriminatory, but they also gave an employee the opportunity to highlight their needs under disability legislation.

Although I am a psychotherapist and counsellor I didn’t want to provide therapy to the people I was going to work with; most people with a severe and enduring mental illness have access to psychiatric treatment and support in some shape or form. What they often don’t have is workplace support. What I set out to do was to identify ways in which we could identify the obstacles to workplace integration and to create systems that could overcome these. I didn’t do it alone – I had the support of a major employer and also of a good team in my own workplace, but for reasons of confidentiality I can’t name them here. We talked to employees who met certain criteria (severe and enduring mental illness diagnosed by a psychiatrist, self-referred and wanting to be part of a programme that would involve sharing information across several parties) and found that almost universally they were highly motivated not only to remain employed but to grow and flourish, to be equals to their peers whilst having their particular needs met. We found that the adjustments needed to improve their situation were very often minor, with little or no cost involved, but made a huge difference. Flexible working hours was a frequent solution, especially for people who found that their medication impacted on their focus at the beginning or end of the day. Some people had specific severe phobias that, once identified to the employer, could be worked around. The introduction of Buddies or Mentors was also something that was often effective. The biggest single issue was, of course, stigma. So often what we found was that people had either been stigmatised by colleagues or conversely had kept quiet for fear of this happening. It was really very little effort to change this.

I’m not trying to self-promote here. What I am trying to say is that people with a severe and enduring mental illness are not aliens – they are not drawn from some other population to which we don’t belong. At work they can be on the shop floor or the boardroom, they can be rough or they can be cultured, they can be friendly or aloof. All of them, though, can and want to be productive valuable employees who contribute to the efficiency of an organisation and in return receive the security that employment brings. It is not rocket science to understand why this is for the good of UK Plc, nor why it is good for the individual. Dame Carol Black highlighted the simple psychological truth – Work is Good For You – in her excellent ‘Working for a Healthier Tomorrow’. All we have to do now is help employers understand that it is good for them too.

Kevin

Here’s my self-promotion bit – you can find my Fear of Therapy cartoon blog at http://therapophobia.wordpress.com

I should add a couple of points: although I’ve been out of work for two years, I do agree that working can be very good for people with mental health problems.  Of course that doesn’t always mean that people who are still unstable or uncertain as to whether the worst of their symptoms can be adequately managed for the foreseeable future should attempt to make a return to work – it’s imperative for both the person in question and their employer that the person is ready to move back into the workplace.  If you’re not at work at the minute but are thinking of returning to or looking for a job, please discuss the matter with your GP, therapist or psychiatrist.

I think it’s brilliant that Kevin has made such efforts to support those with mental health problems in his organisation, and hope that perhaps someone will read this (or otherwise learn of his work) and be inspired to discuss it at their workplace too.

Also, the Therapophobia blog has given me a good few laughs over the last few weeks, so get yourself over there if you need a bit of cheering up 🙂

There hasn’t been much ‘normal service’ on this blog this week, and I still haven’t reported back on my first meeting with Paul which was on Monday.  I’m hoping business as usual will be resumed tomorrow or, at the latest, at the weekend. x

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21 thoughts on “Guest Post: Working With a Mental Illness

  1. Pingback: Pandora

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  10. Being Mental and Work is probably the thing I most blog about really, be it benefits related, occupational health or work related. I hope one day I too will be a successful working person again, but it’s going to be a hard road back. My workplace are indeed fantastic though and have been very supportive – there are other people with severe and enduring mental illnesses within the company and one of which was a great support when I was first ill and I hope to get back in touch with her as I plan to get back to work. She has been doing some work on improving the situation for people with MH problems as part of our disability awareness group at work and I’d really like to start helping her with this.

  11. I find working really difficult at the moment, even though I’m only part time. I know that the discipline and daily routine is good for me -but the interactions with the public and the somewhat chaotic nature of my current job are not so healthyl. That being said, I am working in a call-centre, which is not remotely suited to me, really, given my constant anxiety about using telephones. I’ve had several public breakdowns over the past few months which have all been triggered by something that happened at work (or the phones themselves were a more general trigger for agoraphobia/social anxiety issues). It’s also aggravating certain physical issues.

    I am not sure whether I should to look for work elsewhere, because I really like the company I work for and the HR people have been very helpful. Not to mention I wouldn’t want to go through the whole disclosure / probation process with a new job. And finding something part time is hard. And even in a work environment without phone calls I end up freaking out anyway and have run out on several jobs in the past due to general mentalism and paranoia getting the better of me.

    The tl;dr version of this comment: everything’s shite and I don’t know whether I’ll be able to sustain this for much longer.

    • Oh, and I forgot to say that I consistently work at jobs below my intellectual level. Of course this just makes me despise myself more, but I am trying to look at it from a less mental perspective.

      I think a lot of people with mental illnesses or physical disabilities end up working in shitty jobs that they hate, simply because there aren’t any other viable options. It’s not a reflection on *me*, and it isn’t a moral failing to not have a PHD or glorious career laid out at my feet.

      • Hi Jeneli,

        I agree with your comment about mentalists working below their fighting weight, or as you put it, their intellectual ability.

        With reference to the guest post, I think one of the biggest issues for anyone returning to work is that many employers simply won’t or can’t conceive of the benefit to the employee of a phased return to work – that is, returning gradually.

        I remember once, before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I had been hospitalised for some time. When I returned to work, I was given a meeting with HR and my boss. When I suggested (on the advice of my mental health key worker) that I come back to work part time initially, the HR lady said, “Well, that’s fine; but how are you proposing to do a full time job in part time hours?“… And that was a large employer – not ignorant of recognised return to work patterns…

        In short, there is much to be done, and I think that if I could go backwards, I would have insisted that I do awareness training in the company…

      • Yes, there aren’t nearly enough job share / part-time opportunities either, which means that when you finally find a job you’re pretty much stuck with it due to the lack of any other options. There needs to be a lot more flexibility, I think.

  12. Pingback: Pandora

  13. I followed this from the Mental Health Bloggers Daily. After repeating episodes of worsening bi polar, I left my employer. At that time I also asked if I could go back and do awareness training. There has been some, probably not enough and with a recession about to impact the public sector, I feel for the employees and their families.
    Employers do not really care for their employees in my experience ; they tolerate you, then you become a sore thumb when you have an episode of mental illness.

  14. I’ve got no relatives to sponge off and I’m basically expecting that one way or another, eventually I’ll be cut off, so what I do is, I try to save as much money as possible against that happening. It’s a bit like spreading the benefit cut, but with the advantage that I do retain some autonomy if they try to cut me off or threaten me with same unless I attend some meaningless crap workshop or “voluntary” work.

  15. I am glad this guest blog was well received. I agree with everything that’s been said here.
    One of the features of the work I am doing is that employers (who are already customers of my organisation) ask “what will it cost?” and we tell them there is no charge. It can be hard helping employers understand it is simply a business benefit to meet the needs of all employees. I am intrigued by the disparity, for instance, between the efforts for LGBT staff (1.5% of the population) compared with people with mental health issues (16% of the population). I know that work isn’t always the right place when you are unwell, but my view is that the vast majority of mental illness can be well managed and that it should rarely be a bar to economic or social success. Some of the inspirational employees I have worked with have shown me how a joined-up approach can make a huge difference. Confidentiality issues mean I can’t give you examples, but I met some senior executives who were bipolar, severely phobic, schizophrenic and autistic and I met employees near the bottom of the hierarchy eith similar diagnoses. All except one of them – and I am talking in hundreds – were helpable within a short timescale; the one who wasn’t was so keen to be medically retired that no other intervention would ever work. Through twitter I have encountered so many people whose ment illness has sent them to the sidelines that I don’t underestimate the scale if the problem. I just think we can’t afford to marginalise people with mental health problems. It isn’t just about equality or compassion, it is about social and economic essentials. I’m sure some people will disagree with my views but I feel passionate about this. As a senior manager who suffers from cyclical depression, a former boss once told me that my illness made me unsuitable for a leadership role. I want to be able to make her eat her words.

    • Urgh. Kevin, that last line, about being unsuitable for a leadership role… Stoked by the belief that mental illness is a sign of inherant weakness and lack of moral fibre…

      It makes me want to vomit. That’s the sort of thing you read out of a “how make enemies and isolate people to be a successful bitch / bastard manager” manual… Had your former boss just been on “team building” training? Gawd save me!

      X Clarissa

  16. Thanks for sharing this, Kevin and Pandora. It’s always interesting to hear about other people with mental health problems who work and how they cope, and it’s heartening that programmes like Kevin’s are out there! As a research student I get a lot of support from my uni’s disability service, but when I was employed, it all came down to having a manager who happened to be understanding and valued me and wanted to learn how he could help. There was nothing organised in place and if I hadn’t been lucky enough to have such a good boss I don’t think I could have gone back.

    I have written more about my own experience with work, benefits and severe depression in my blog 🙂

    RC x

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