Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The Workplace | The Last Bastion of Mental Health Stigma?

Yesterday saw some stigmatising advice from one of the mental health sector’s leading advocates:

‘If you become mentally ill, don’t – whatever you do – tell your boss. That’s Ruby Wax’s advice.’

Monday’s article on the Guardian contains quotes from Ruby Wax (taken from an interview she gave with the Times), who was recently awarded an OBE encouraging and promoting discussion around mental illness. Ruby’s a spokesperson for mental health charities, and uses her unique humour to tackle the subject in an accessible way. However, she’s decided the workplace is one place where it cannot be discussed:

“When people say, ‘Should you tell them at work?’, I say: ‘Are you crazy?’ You have to lie. If you have someone who is physically ill, they can’t fire you. They can’t fire you for mental health problems but they’ll say it’s for another reason. Just say you have emphysema.” Mental illness, she added, “is like the situation used to be with gay rights. Like being in the closet, but mental illness is now the taboo instead.”

I’m not sure Ruby Wax has even had an employer in the traditional sense, in the past 20 years what with her occupation as an actress and stand-up comedian. And speaking about mental health over the last few years has only re-ignited her career. So she hardly is speaking from any recent experience.
Furthermore, such an opinion is deeply stigmatising and reinforces the notion that we should NOT speak about mental health. It’s a statement that if taken on board could vastly set back the work of stigma reduction, work Ruby has herself been involved in.

Thankfully the journalist, Eleanor Morgan, sharing Ruby’s quotes is of the same opinion as me.

For Wax, a prominent advocate of mental health awareness and visibility, to tell those of us who experience a mental health problem – one in four in the UK each year – that we’re still stigmatised seems a significant regression.

It may have been different if Wax stated the difficulties of discussing mental health issues with an employer rather than advising people not to. Encouraging people to lie and deny they have mental health problems is a huge regression in opening up the discussion, as Morgan points out.

I’m not going to deny the fact that some employers do discriminate against employees with a history or even a diagnosis of mental illness. I’ve heard too many stories to say workplace stigma does not exist. But it’s something we should be addressing, not cowering from and submitting to.

Let’s not forget there are benefits to telling your employer. For starts, you don’t have to hide. You can make work arrangements around counseling sessions, so you don’t have to choose one over the other. You’ll be helping to defeat the stigma by discussing it.

Or if you’re like me, you just can’t lie. My CV is too full of mental health related activities to not be mentioned in a job interview. Sometimes it’s asked in the probing ‘What sparked your interest in mental health?’ where I feel as if they’re asking me outright if I have a mental illness. So I don’t deny it, as Ruby insists we should. Instead I embrace it as part of my journey and experience, but also as the turning point in motivating me to pursue my interests. Yet, my experience with employers is not a universal one.

It’s not as if employers don’t want anything to do with the ‘mentally ill.’ I’ve never not gotten a job where I talked about my mental health in the interview (but maybe you could argue that’s due to an attempt at being overly-tolerant like the negative talking half of my brain sometimes tells me).

See Change, the National Mental Health Stigma Reduction Partnership, has focused a significant amount of their work over the last number of years in giving workplace talks and trainings. Let me spell this point out more clearly – some employers are inviting the mental health conversation into the workplace.

And as Morgan points out, in a Mind survey;

Over half of employers said they’d like to do more to improve staff wellbeing, but felt stuck due to a lack of training or guidance. 

I don’t want to be too hard on Ruby Wax here. She’s done a lot for mental health conversations over the past few years, and hopefully will continue to do so. But in this instance she’s reinforcing the same stigma she’s been trying to defeat.  And her attitude is unlikely to have come from any recent real world experience. She’s just re-stating an old and tired-out cliché. But when it comes to mental health, I’ve learnt that if you don’t know, don’t give advice.

Morgan is slightly harsher on Ruby in her final remarks.

Secrecy doesn’t help. The cold reality of the suicide statistics proves it. What Wax has said is backwards-looking, pessimistic and dangerous. She should know better.

She should know better. But so should all of the employers out there who continue to discriminate on the grounds of mental health. That discrimination is just as outdated as Wax’s advice.

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