How you can support an employee with a mental health illness

A perspective from someone who suffers from major depressive and anxiety disorder

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, one in five people become depressed at some point in their lives. 

Yet, despite more understanding of late, depression still remains one of the most stigmatised and least understood ‘common’ illnesses to exist. Many people believe depression to be trivial, and something that one can simply ‘snap out of’. Depression is associated as a ‘weakness’ as opposed to what it really is, which is: a real illness, with real symptoms. 

Let’s understand depression a bit more… 

The main reason why mental health and particularly depression is a subject close to heart for me is because I suffer from depression and anxiety disorder. I have done for many years. It’s something I used to speak to very few people about and had to contend with alone for most of my life. 

When I first started suffering from breakdowns and episodes, I felt far too embarrassed to speak with anybody. I did not feel as though I would be understood, nor did I think of about the benefits of asking for help. In fact, my depression inevitably always leads me to genuinely believe myself to be a burden – even to healthcare professionals, and therefore unworthy of support. 

When my symptoms first started I felt as though a large part of me was absent and eventually I became consumed in negative thoughts and feelings. It started to interfere profusely with my everyday life to a point where I eventually broke to a point of needing psychiatric help. I was in my mid-teens at the time. 

For four years, I was in and out of psychiatric care. Weekly meetings with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS), special needs during secondary school and countless medications. So I guess I could say “I’ve been there and done that”. However, despite all of this, the most important thing of all was absent. The absence of feeling that I am still ‘normal’. It’s the stigma and the horrible things associated to the notion of depression that halted my recovery for so many years. 

The common misconception about depression and depressed people is that they are mentally unstable therefore, not normal – or at least that’s certainly what I and so many others facing depression feel. 

One thing I never understood though is, it’s normal for people to catch the flu. If someone has cancer, they have their entire group of friends, family and everyone else in the community praying for their recovery, or if someone breaks their arm, everyone rushes to sign their cast. Yet, when it comes to depression, people turn a blind eye; they walk away. The same applies to other mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia, psychosis and personality disorders. What we need to understand as a society is that these are illnesses just as much as the flu is.  

I still struggle with depressive episodes to date and whilst I’ve in large part overcome my fear of speaking out about it, I can’t deny that it does make me feel embarrassed to do so. The weird thing is that I’m not necessarily  depressed because everything in my life is going bad. No, quite the opposite – My life could actually be going very well, yet it’s this imbalance in my mind that causes depressive episodes every now and again and it’s something I can’t control and it’s feelings that I can’t help but feel. 

Fortunately, I’ve learnt very well how to manage my illness compared to others that suffer. This is only because I’ve had many years to learn how best to deal with it. I’ve disassociated depression with societal ignorance, I understand that it is a normal illness. I’ve accepted, and learnt in most part to live with it (with the caveat that, during my next depressive episode, this will in most part be forgotten). 

Many sufferers of long-term depression will tell you the same thing; they can’t help feeling the way they do. Depression doesn’t necessarily even occur as a result of ‘being sad’ about something. Sadness is associated with bereavement, getting over a relationship or feeling a sadness because something bad has happened. Sufferers of depression often feel sad and trapped in their own negative thoughts even when everything in their life is okay. Comedians are a huge example of this. You just have to google the words ‘comedian depression’ to see an endless list of hilarious entertainers that suffer from depressive disorders. 

Implementing mental health management strategies 

Setting aside legal requirements under the Equality Act and/or other applicable law or regulation, I truly believe that an organisation’s values are defined by the way that less advantaged, under-represented and less able people are treated. 

So, I want to provide some advice – from both the perspective of a sufferer of a mental illness as well as an advocate for equality, of some tips on how best to recruit, manage and retain diverse talent. 

Firstly – Should you hire someone with a mental health illness? 

Why should you recruit or give a chance to somebody with a mental illness? It’s madness, surely? – Surely hiring a ‘nut-job’ is a liability?

Absolutely not! 

Those with mental health disabilities are actually very capable; and in fact, chances are, they will understand certain situations or be able to identify opportunities or gaps where “more-abled” colleagues aren’t.

When I was in the police service and also during my time in immigration, I frequently came across those with mental health vulnerabilities. My in-depth understanding of their situation was an invaluable resource to the organisations I worked for. I was able to empathise, understand how best to speak to those with mental health vulnerabilities as well as how best to advise, signpost and deal with them.

Treat those with mental health vulnerabilities well and you’re likely to achieve high productivity, less sickness days and a very loyal employee who will repay your kindness with gratitude and a passion to succeed. 

Supporting a colleague or employee with a mental health illness – especially depression and anxiety disorders. 

Some tips: 

  • Read about their illness to try and better understand what they’re going through. Good resources include the charity ‘mind’, the NHS website and CoreHR . 
  • Assure them of confidentiality (unless of course they pose a risk of harm to themselves or others, in which case, your organisation should have a process or policy in place to deal with these matters). 
  • Include them in key decisions about the organisation or any departmental changes and seek their views and ideas. 
  • Feel confident and comfortable to be able to discuss their mental health during one-to-one meetings. Explain to them your willingness to understand their condition better. Don’t however impose this upon them and force them to answer your questions! It’s their choice.
  • Ask them what reasonable adjustments you could put in place for them; this is a legal requirement and a no-brainer! Importantly, you may want to consider putting reasonable adjustments in place for the interview process too, (be careful not to ask about the history of their illness during the interview, as this could land you in a whole world of legal trouble, but you can certainly outline your willingness to consider adjustments for mental health illnesses too at the interview invitation stage!), an example could be as simple as providing just a little bit more guidance to the prospective employee of what questions they could expect; for a person with an anxiety disorder, this would be extremely welcome! – or perhaps do this for all interviewees, there’s no reason not to!
  • Think of any adjustments you could put in place for them even if they can’t think of any themselves; there’s case-law that has been through Employment Tribunals that actively requires this! Examples could be adjustments to their working environment or workload, allowing time off for healthcare appointments and adjusting their attendance trigger points.
  • Provide an Employee Assistance Programme to all employees and embed a culture of openness within your organisation – be disability confident and actively provide guaranteed interview schemes to disabled employees, including those with mental health disabilities.
  • Embed within your own organisational strategy active steps to ensure inclusivity for all, including those with mental health difficulties; this could be mandatory mental health training, appointing mental health first-aiders or even positive-discrimination recruitment and promotion strategies or mentorship programmes for leadership development 
  • Remain patient: A colleague with an anxiety disorder in-particular may struggle with getting their point across as clearly and concisely as they would like; they may repeat certain things or come across as unsure. It in no way means that they’re any less capable than a more abled person to make decisions!  
  • Be conscious of what you are saying and how you are saying it. It’s important not to treat the person like a second-class citizen.

And most importantly:

  • Remain open-minded 

My own struggles when trying to find work / things that I’ve been through at work, three real-life situations that has happened to me: 

The first situation:

After an interview, I had a telephone call providing me with some feedback. “Sabbir, you did really well, but we found that you repeated yourself a lot during the second part of the interview”. 

My comments:

Yes, I was incredibly nervous and my anxiety was flaring up. At the time, I felt like running away and abandoning the interview process altogether. 

It’s certainly not unfair for the interviewer to say this. I’m not even suggesting that it is incorrect – it’s perfectly correct. However, it is a somewhat hurtful comment; it’s something that demonstrated to me a lack of accommodation to mental health illnesses and made me feel somewhat disadvantaged merely because of a symptom of my illness being a factor that affected my performance and in turn potentially influencing the hiring decision.

How this organisation could have helped me through the interview process is to have provided a little more explanation of what the job actually entails and what to expect during the interview process – i.e. the types of questions I will be asked and what competencies they’re seeking to establish. 

I didn’t get this job because another candidate was able to demonstrate their skills in a better way.

In contrast, a few days later, I had another job interview with an organisation that I start with very soon. Even before the interview took place, I felt a sense of readiness – I was told exactly what to expect during the interview, provided with an explanation of the kinds of questions I would be asked as well as having strong reassurance from the HR person of the organisation’s approach to employees with mental health illnesses.

And yes – I got the job.

The second situation:

An employer referred me to the occupational health service, who advised the employer that I should be allowed to wear “noise cancellation headphones or other headphone to be able to listen to relaxation music in a noisy office environment”. My employer’s response was to suggest that this is an unreasonable adjustment and that they will not allow it as it is against the “ground rules”

My comments:

This decision affected my work ability and I suffered greatly with stress and loss of productivity. I also felt very unsupported by the organisation’s management. 

However, more to this is how great a risk the organisation placed itself in and indeed the risk bit them back – hard. I was awarded £12,000 in compensation for disability discrimination as well as having the original decision reversed. 

Not only would my productivity have been far greater, the organisation would not have had to pay-out a five figure sum for a decision contrary to medical advice. 

The third situation (a positive one to end on a positive note!):

A manager knew of my condition, but didn’t know very much about how to support me. So, in a 1-1 meeting, she said to me “Sabbir, I’d really appreciate if you could tell me a bit more about your illness and how I can support you?” 

My comments:

This almost brought tears to my eyes. It was incredibly kind, demonstrated generosity and support and made me feel like a valued and normal person. 

The result from this became a strong friendship even after parting ways as colleagues, as well as me providing support and help to her in her own work and always doing my best for her. 

So to finish this article…

Be like the third situation – Be kind, show some empathy…and in return, you’ll have yourself a loyal employee who will support you through thick and thin! 

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