We recently sat down with Kate, a Data Analyst who has faced challenges in the workplace due to her mental health conditions. Kate generously shares her experiences and insights on the topic, including how disclosure and the reactions of coworkers can be some of the most stressful aspects, the importance of good policy and reasonable adjustments, and the need for empowering individuals who are struggling to find employment. We hope that Kate's perspective will provide valuable guidance and inspiration to those who are navigating similar challenges in their own lives and careers.
1. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences with mental health, and how it has affected your ability to work?
I've always been able to declare my mental illness early, as a long term health condition. This usually puts it in the class of disability, meaning it's on the recruitment paperwork - but it's surprising to me how few interviewers might have noticed. By the time I reach the interview stage, I usually ask for the role to be adjusted from full-time to 80% - I've had various responses! Notably, an interviewer once told me "thank you for being so honest." Something that seems a straightforward request for me, and doesn't make me nervous, often reveals others' discomfort. We talk a lot about this in disability activism, about disabled people having to use confidence and authority to set the tone or set a good example.
I've consistently earned much less than my salary and experience would usually dictate, because I've worked part-time to allow time for treatment. I've usually managed to progress, but more slowly than my peers. On the other hand my experiences with disability have sometimes given me marketable skills that actually help in roles like client management and team building.
2. In your opinion, what are some common misconceptions people have about mental health conditions that can make it harder for individuals to find and keep employment?
There's a huge taboo about absenteeism. When my depression caused me to get sicker at weekends, and Monday would be the hardest day of the working week for me, I was asked if I was faking or just partying too much. There's an expectation that mental illnesses are treated like emotional life issues - dealt with in private and requiring care from the family or community. When the illness prevents me from properly even resting at the right times, it's considered a problem with self organisation.
I've been lucky enough to be comfortable sharing my diagnosis with every employer I've had as an adult - for those who don't wish to share, they're often downplaying or suffering in silence. People's expectations are that depression lasts a short time and passes, or that mental illnesses require a change in life circumstances (break up with your boyfriend, get a different therapist) but they're usually managed with stable healthcare plans, and highly variable recovery styles.
3. What are some of the biggest challenges you face when it comes to finding and maintaining employment, and how have you overcome them?
Disclosure and the reactions of my coworkers are the most stressful aspects. I try to make it clear that I'm telling them about my illness for awareness, not that I'm seeking emotional support or reassurance. It's really hard to normalise the idea that you're late for a meeting because of a panic attack, instead of traffic. Long term health conversations can be like a broken record - we live with illnesses that don't always go away, that ebb and flow - whereas life in work expects problems to be brief and eventually resolved. If your child's school is on a busy road and you can never park in the afternoon for school pick up, it's normal to come back to work between 10 and 30 minutes later, every day. It's a lot to always set expectations with coworkers, when an illness doesn't really fall into a pattern.
I try to model the idea of providing people with a lot of information about me, so they can plan around me, but it does get tiring, especially when we're so used to planning around others for non-health reasons, but disabled employees are considered such an emotional subject. It takes time to build trust with a new team, so I usually gravitate towards people who just "get it" more quickly, or keep my circle small.
I rely a lot on HR policies, good practice and inspiring conversations with other disabled people to cope with the challenges of working with a disability.
4. How do you think employers could better support and accommodate individuals with mental health conditions in the workplace?
Good policy is essential - there needs to be a distinction between mental illnesses, and the natural stress and emotions of life. I don't usually need "mental health first aid" initiatives, though I appreciate their usefulness for others - providing trained and guaranteed safe spaces for a listening ear.
Organisations can encourage and model safe disclosure practices, and provide policies or information to support them. Employee networks (disabled staff networks, LGBTQ networks) are essential because they often use real staff input to form organisation-wide policy.
Reasonable adjustments are a legal requirement and managers should be trained in implementing them. I think the best way to move forward quickly is to destigmatize and simply remove some of the awkwardness of the conversations - training, awareness raising and practising using the language we need, will help staff get comfortable and become more efficient and confident supporting mental illnesses in the workplace.
5. What advice would you give to other individuals who are struggling to find employment, or who are facing barriers to employability due to their differences?
Empowerment, empowerment empowerment. If you're not being valued for your differences or heard at work, find another environment that does this - online peer groups, friends, clubs or recovery groups. Other environments have helped me think outside the box of working life, and gain confidence. It doesn't have to be anything to do with health - there are communities which do this well, and it can help individuals become comfortable with their differences safely. I've tried to use those experiences and that confidence to then go back into the workplace and encourage good practice which then supports and keeps me safe.
6. In your opinion, what role should society play in promoting more inclusive and diverse workplaces, and how can we work together to break down barriers to employability for everyone? (i.e. flexible work hours, training, education, fostering a more diverse workplace culture)
All of these things - we do have a responsibility to adapt to a changing world, and there are so many resources available to it. In my early career, I relied so much on other disabled people modelling however they were going about making it work, with employment and life in general. Case studies, diverse voices and staff-informed policies and training are already making such a difference.