The perfect storm: Mental health and work

Wednesday 10 October 2018

JenniferWe too often equate work with worth. If you’re unable to work due a mental health condition or any other reason, you’re deemed worthless. Yet if you manage to secure a job but end up struggling with your health to the extent it impacts on your work, you’re judged as underperforming. You’re treated like you’re not really trying, even though you are actually working ten times harder than your colleagues in order to manage your condition and stay in work. This was my experience. It wears you down and feels like a vicious cycle you can’t escape. It isn’t any wonder that Young Women’s Trust found so many young women are saying that work is making them ill.

Mental health conditions are unseen, so the employee must disclose them to the employer to stand any chance of getting reasonable adjustments or understanding from them. This can be terrifying – you’re never sure how they’re going to react or whether they’ll think you can’t do your job. I once had a manager who dismissed my concerns about fire safety and building security as me feeling ‘more vulnerable’ than other employees, a comment which I felt was a double insult on both my mental health challenges and on me being a young woman.

Things that come naturally for many people can be very difficult for those of us with a mental health problem – concentrating in a noisy office, using the telephone and getting to places on time. When this affects your work, it can be wrongly seen as laziness. Poor mental health is often perceived as poor performance in a way that it wouldn’t be with other difficulties.

I was labelled as careless and lacking attention to detail when I kept making spelling and grammar mistakes in things I was writing. I was having to write things under pressure to tight deadlines while managing my fluctuating mental health and excessive tiredness and was just about managing to force myself into work each day. My manager would highlight all the mistakes in my work and accuse me of not checking it properly.

It can become too much; you’re too unwell to work and have to be signed off for a period of time. Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is £92.05 a week. That doesn’t even cover my rent, and you cannot claim any other benefits while on SSP as you are still employed. I used up all my company sick pay (two weeks’ full pay) when I was signed off due to poor mental health last year; so, when I got signed off for another month this year, I was so stressed about how I was going to live on SSP and pay my rent that I ended up going back into work even though I was really unwell. I ended up forcing myself into work, getting more ill and getting in more trouble with my employer than if I had just been able to have the time off to recover without worrying about money.

I only have myself to look after. Imagine if you had children or other caring responsibilities and were trying to make £92.05 cover everything from your rent, to bills, to food for your whole family.

The whole world seems to be talking about mental health, but very little seems to be being done. This is especially true on a governmental level, where mental health services are still chronically underfunded, the benefits system isn’t working and sick pay makes people sicker.

My experiences with work have often left me feeling worthless, like I am not capable of anything and that maybe I am just not able to work at all. But somewhere deep down I know that’s not true. I know with the right support I’m able to do a good job and to even excel. But it’s only with the support from organisations like Young Women’s Trust that I have slowly started to believe that.