Otis Robinson 28th November 2017
Time off work can be essential to recover from sickness. Whether it’s a broken bone or a cold, doctors always recommend taking a bit of time to rest and coming back fighting fit – and most employers are more than happy to allow their staff to take time off to recuperate. But that sympathy often seems to disappear when it comes to mental illness.
Major depression is considered to be the second leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the Mental Health Foundation.
Suffering with mental health issues at work can be extremely debilitating and cause employees to have difficulty functioning properly, and yet these problems are rarely considered important enough to warrant time off.
Because of this, those who are diagnosed with a mental health problem may end up suffering in silence, instead choosing to create excuses to have a day off. Of the one in five people who took a mental health day, almost all lied to their boss about the reason, according to a study by Mind. And even those whose employers are aware of their disabilities consistently decide to hide the truth because of the stigma attached to mental illness.
Lily*, 22, a student who previously worked in a hotel, says even though her employer was aware of her mental health issues they didn’t take it seriously.
I heard from a friend that the manager had made jokes about me that day, like ‘oh, she’s having another panic attack’
“I was taking antidepressants. I felt rubbish and drained, and I ended up walking out [of work] one day after having a panic attack,” she says.
“They called and called my phone, but I didn’t pick up. Then, later I heard from a friend that the manager had made jokes about me that day, like ‘oh, she’s having another panic attack’.”
Her anxiety gets in the way of ordinary tasks.
“I overthink everything, even if I’m sat at home. When I talk to friends, I can take things a different way. I overthink if I’ve done things wrong and worry if people hate me. Work increases my anxiety; it’s always a fear of making mistakes, letting people down or fucking up.
“I’ve never taken a mental health day, and I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’d feel too embarrassed; I feel like they would say ‘so what?’”
The stigma attached to depression means that sufferers are ashamed to ask their employers for support. Lily felt so segregated and mistreated regarding her illnesses that the thought of informing future employers was frightening.
While some workplaces may take care to respect the wellbeing of their employees, they can often still lack an understanding of the need for time off.
Rachel*, 22, a teaching assistant, said: “Sometimes things feel exhausting to me that might not to others.
“My work is aware of my mental health issues because we work in really close quarters. I felt I had to explain myself [because] they watched me walk away to be alone when having a panic attack.
“But, in my place of work, having a mental health day would be frowned upon, so [I would] always provide a reason rather than saying I’m depressed or anxious.”
Last month, charity the Mental Health Foundation drew attention to these experiences by recognising World Mental Health Day. The day’s discussions were dedicated to smashing the social stigma that works against discussing these issues openly and helping those like Rachel and Lily to be free from discrimination and internalised discomfort.
The Mental Health Foundation’s campaign offered green ribbon pin badges for those who wanted to show their support of the cause and several guides on how to support and deal with mental health in the workplace. In one guide, the charity draws attention to the need for managers to provide the same levels of empathy, support and flexibility to those with mental health as they would to an employee going through “bereavement, divorce, or caring responsibilities”.
Similar to Lily, 22-year-old Katie* also suffers with anxiety, but her employer has a different approach.
“I overthink a lot of things [at work], which makes me feel slower. Routine helps me, but sometimes the stress is crazy,” she says.
“I’ve not taken a mental health day here, but they would help me if I needed it. I feel comfortable [telling my employers] if I need to.”
Katie says she has a support network of friends that she works with who are aware of her mental health issues.
Having support networks and an employer who cares about mental health can provide comfort to employees who are unable to find it within themselves because of the social stigmas that discourage self care. However, things are looking better for sufferers, as more employers recognise the importance of mental health.
Rachel says: “I’d hope my generation will ensure mental illness is considered in the same way as physical illness.”
Lily suggests that the stigma comes from older generations. “I’ve noticed people around our age are more likely to talk about this stuff and share their experiences. People my age show support.”
The Mental Health Foundation was founded in 1949, and the charity continues to work at securing the survival of those with mental health problems. The future is now, and yet mental health days remain so far out of reach for those in need of a day off.
*Names have been changed.
Otis Robinson 28th November 2017