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Levelling-up: mental health and work

RUTH HUNT talks to those who have been kept out of the workplace through discrimination over their mental health

CONSERVATIVES at Walsall Council have objected to Sean Coughlan, a Labour councillor who has been open about his mental health problems, taking up the post of deputy mayor.

The decision was called “democratic” but the reason given for blocking his appointment was his past struggles with mental health — a decision Coughlan described as “archaic.”

This news story shines a light on the unfair treatment many employees with a mental health diagnosis face, despite the Equality Act (2010).

Voluntary positions, such as councillors, board members and carers for the elderly or children, often require a large degree of responsibility and time.

There is also personal pride in a voluntary position, of “giving back to society.”

So, if a person is blocked from carrying out such a role it can be very damaging to the person’s sense of self and can carry through to paid roles or attempts to find such employment.

This is what Joanne* experienced. She oversaw a kids’ club based in a church hall — an important role but something she really enjoyed.

When a new leader was appointed, they were informed about her mental health problems (none of which indicated harm to anyone else).

As a result, Joanne was informed she could no longer do this role due to “safeguarding” issues.

Joanne said: “I was heartbroken — volunteering was a part of my identity and one of the few things that made me feel like I had some use and value at a time where I felt absolutely hopeless.”

Looking back she can now see how that experience has carried through into other posts. For example, she will leave a job early, not waiting to be pushed out and experience such a devastating fallout again.

Discrimination can be direct and indirect. For Andrew, the discrimination he experienced was direct and in that respect, was easier to fight.

He was working in a specialised company that was undergoing restructuring and was the only out of the three senior managers on the team who was told he was going to be made redundant.

“The decision of which senior manager to be made redundant was based on personal opinions of the managers,” Andrew said, “and they included in this ‘inconsistent work — mistakes, bad organisation, not able to handle pressure consistently’ when they knew I was poorly at the time due to my mental illness.”

Being a member of a union is something Andrew advocates for all those in employment, especially those who have a long-term health condition or disability.

This is because he got his union involved, who successfully pointed out the disability discrimination — and he won the case.

Even though Andrew was successful, the fact that he was singled out with the excuse being work when his manager knew was beginning to get unwell, reveals the unfairness that many with a mental illness experience in the workplace.

This unfairness, whether it is direct or indirect discrimination can at times feel like “gaslighting,” with a problematic working environment, for example, blamed on the person who complains about it.

This is what happened to Sarah, who was moving into a job as a “recovery worker” that on paper seemed to be like the position she currently held, the only difference being it based in a drop-in centre.

She soon found out that rather than helping clients in their recovery, she was having to organise bingo sessions, take clients swimming, or even wash their hair.

Sarah wanted to know why she couldn’t teach the service users how to take the bus to the swimming baths or how to wash their own hair.

 “As a recovery worker,” Sarah said, “I just didn’t see how it was useful to always ‘do for’ people.”

The manager had no intention of changing — so wouldn’t let Sarah carry out her role properly. Ultimately, this led to her making a complaint.

Bizarrely, the investigation found against Sarah, with the conclusion reached that because of her mental illness “she was more susceptible to misinterpreting situations.”

Sarah was advised that she could fight the decisions made by this employer through Acas, but the experience had such a detrimental impact on her mental health she felt unable to do this.

“I was so demoralised,” Sarah said. “I felt humiliated and I worried that in future jobs my informing employers of my health meant I was likely to encounter a similar situation again.

“I had always advocated that my diagnosis doesn’t mean I can’t do the job — so why hide it? But now, I wouldn’t want to disclose it.”

For those treated unfairly in a manner that is indirect, it can be like fighting an enemy with a blindfold on. They don’t know who it is that’s causing the problems or why they are being targeted.

Jules, who has mild anxiety and depression, was working in a respite house for teenagers within a local authority. In 2018 her anxiety and depression had reappeared and this led to several times where she was signed off work and suicide attempts resulting in her being sectioned. This was very traumatic and left Jules with PTSD.

When she felt better, she was keen to go back to work. She had an appointment with occupational health, who agreed with Jules, that she was ready to return to her post, but her managers didn’t agree with this finding.

This argument lasted a few more weeks, with Jules stuck at home, wondering why her managers and the human resources team didn’t want her back at work.

As a compromise she was redeployed to an administration job, where she wouldn’t be in contact with clients.

Jules felt that being in the middle of this argument with the occupational health team on one side and the human resources team and her managers on the other, gnawed away at her self-esteem.

“The messaging I got was that I couldn’t return to my original role,” Jules said. “So, eventually I submitted my resignation. But this was very much me jumping before I was pushed to protect my own mental health.”

Jules was soon able to find work identical to her original post, proving her previous employers wrong.

Years later, she spotted a post that seemed ideal. It was within the adult services division of the same local authority where she had previously had a job.

She was offered the role and all the usual checks went through including the occupational health team again, declaring she was fit for work.

Two days before Christmas, she was called by the manager of the team she was due to join. He informed her that the job offer was being withdrawn but didn’t give her an adequate or clear reason why this was the case.

“It’s so frustrating to know that I’m more than capable of doing my job well,” Jules said, “but other people’s prejudice has held me back.

“I work in the social care sector and most of the jobs are local authority roles that I now feel I’m unable to apply for, but not really knowing why I’m blocked from these roles.”

The Tory councillors in Walsall are no doubt talking about the “levelling-up” agenda of the government.

For Joanne, Andrew, Sarah, Jules and the many people with a mental health diagnosis, levelling-up is not just geographical or about funding.

Instead, it should also be about changing attitudes and behaviour to remove stigma, so that in the workplace all employees are treated fairly, whether they have a mental health diagnosis or not.

*Names have been changed.

Ruth F Hunt is a freelance journalist and author.

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