Approximately 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem in any given year.
But even though many of us are talking about mental illness more than ever before, less than half of UK employees said they would be able to speak openly with their line manager about it, according to statistics produced by the Mental Health Foundation.
Rohan Kallicharan, former Talent Manager at reed.co.uk, has lived with Bipolar since his late teens, and shared some of his experiences on how (and when) to talk about mental health in the workplace:
Mental health at work
Days taken off due to stress, depression and anxiety has risen by 24% in the last six years.
That means an estimated 70 million working days are lost to mental ill health every single year, at a cost of £70-100 billion per annum.
And it isn’t just sick days that are costing companies. It’s widely acknowledged that ‘presenteeism’ – employees turning up for work when unwell – also increases costs, by exacerbating their symptoms and decreasing productivity.
Yet, these costs can be reduced – by creating environments in which people feel they’re able to speak more openly about the problems they face.
Should I tell my employer?
You are never obliged to declare any mental illness to your employer.
Remember, it’s a very personal decision and if you feel your work is not being affected by your mental health, the typical instinct will be to say nothing and keep the status quo. However, if it’s compromising your work, it definitely makes sense to speak to your employer.
For me personally, I ‘suffered in silence’ for so long, unable to hold down work because of my fear of letting anyone know about my illness.
I’m now fortunate enough to work in an environment in which I’m able to thrive and speak openly about my mental health and vulnerabilities at the times I need to the most. And having that support and understanding from your colleagues should never be underestimated.
What should I say?
You could simply ask for time off for personal issues. However, if this becomes a repeat pattern, questions can usually arise.
In my own recent experience, speaking openly with my manager allowed her to understand how my mental illness could affect my work during difficult periods, and subsequently allowed her to work with me to create conditions in which I could still be productive.
Better still, with my permission she invited in a local mental health charity to speak to my team – not only about my symptoms, but also the wider impact of mental ill health, creating an open environment where talking about mental health became the norm and not stigmatic.
Should I tell my colleagues?
Again, you have no obligation to disclose a mental health problem to your colleagues.
However, colleagues are often friends and, even if not, can see when you’re not your usual self.
It all comes down to the type of relationships you have with colleagues but mental illness is a heavy burden to carry, and trying to constantly hide your true self can be exhausting. And that’s before even trying to do your job.
Sharing with trusted colleagues can potentially give you a source of support, and you may find others who empathise and are living with their own mental health challenges.
As with telling your manager, you may also find that co-workers not only want to listen and help, but also make themselves more aware.
When to bring it up
There is no right or wrong time to bring up mental illness.
The tendency is to approach the subject only during times of difficulty. But you may actually find yourself able to talk more openly and educate better by speaking at a time when you feel well.
The most important thing is to speak at a time when you feel strong enough to have that conversation.
How to bring it up
Again, there is no right or wrong way to do this, but I recommend following the guidelines set out by Time to Change, the UK’s largest campaign tackling stigma around mental health.
They suggest requesting a one-to-one meeting with your manager, some private time where you can discuss your mental health, how it relates to your work, and what might help you manage your health so you can perform well.
The legal side
Even if they aren’t receptive, your employer has legal obligations to follow under the Equality Act to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ and not discriminate in recruiting, retaining or promoting staff.
In fact, mental health problems are listed as a disability under the Act so you’re likely to be protected in every eventuality. However, you can also seek more in-depth legal advice if you feel as if it’s necessary.
What help is available?
Your first action point should be to contact your GP, and in the case of an emergency or crisis your local A&E.
However, other great resources available include:
Top tips on dealing with mental health in the workplace
The most important thing to remember is that, no matter what mental health issues you face, you only need to speak about things that you feel comfortable discussing.
The main point is to create an environment in which you can continue to be successful at work, and find some way in which your employer can support you, if necessary.
Additionally, be prepared that others may actually approach you to talk about their own problems, so have a plan for how you might respond in those moments.
Be open and honest, the majority of people will want to understand and help.
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