I am sure that more than on any other World Mental Health Day in history there are more people talking about mental health today than ever before. This can only be a good thing. Not a day goes by without me seeing something in the press or on social media talking about mental health and the importance of talking about mental health. Mental health has arrived.
When I started my law firm didlaw 10 years ago in 2008 with the aim of addressing mental health discrimination in the workplace no-one was talking about mental health. We have come a long way. We have. You cannot deny it. But is mental health at work the new diversity? Yes, it is on the agenda in boardrooms. It is top of the list of matters to address. But is there a lot of talking and not enough doing? I’d say so because my firm is busier than ever dealing with the issues that arise day in day out at work. Employers just are not good with mental health illness. Clearly I only see the cases where it goes wrong but there are an awful lot of them and way too many repeat offenders. Also way too many companies who do a lot of PR about how great they are as employers but a lot of it, sadly, is PR and window-dressing. It’s easy to talk about it but do nothing on the ground.
Ever the optimist I do believe that talking about mental health at work is a good thing. How can it not be? But does it translate into real change and action on the ground? I am not so sure. Workers are more forthcoming about revealing their sexual orientation at work than they are admitting to having any kind of mental health problem. When workers can come out at work but are scared to admit to having a mental health issue there is something wrong and deeply worrying about the culture. There is still a major stigma. Even those people who suffer from common mental health conditions like depression and anxiety self-stigmatise. Some won’t even tell their nearest and dearest. They fear the “surely not you?” reaction.
Culturally we have a long way to go. In the workplace sadly all too often workers go off sick and never return. The deafening silence about what is wrong with them signals that it’s mental health. People with cancer or heart problems generally have no issue with people knowing what is wrong. When there is silence the conclusion is that it’s mental health. And when they don’t return to work it signals to others that perhaps they are not welcome back because they are perceived to be damaged goods. This creates a vicious circle. If workers don’t return after having time off for mental health how would others in the workplace feel secure about declaring they have any kind of issue? Or feel able to take time off for recovery when it is needed? It is not an easy problem to resolve but it starts with building trust.
As we at didlaw celebrate our 10th birthday and World Mental Health Day is celebrated on 10- 10 – 2018 perhaps we can all be thinking what we can do to change our workplaces to be more supportive to those with mental health conditions. How we might look out for the person sitting at the desk next to us? How managers might think that perhaps working someone to a frazzle isn’t such a good idea and that they ought to tell the guy who works late every night that he needs to go home early. We know what the factors are at work that precipitate mental health illness: why aren’t we addressing those more actively and working out as businesses what we can do to prevent mental health illness? That, my friends, is the real issue. Why are workplaces not doing more to prevent issues and to protect workers?
Karen Jackson is an authority in disability discrimination law and in particular mental health at work. Her London-based firm didlaw specialises in litigation and resolving disputes around mental health.