10:05, October 26 66 0 theguardian.com

2017-10-26 10:05:03
Having a mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t work – I’m proof

It’s official. The government-commissioned Thriving at Work report has found that many of us are not, in fact, thriving at work. About 300,000 of us with long-term mental health problems lose their job each year in the UK. For me, this is news alongside sky is blue; Liverpool FC are perpetually underachieving; David Davis understands the Brexit process as much as he does superstring theory.

We have been saying this for a long time. We the people who know. The people with mental illness; the mental health professionals; the experts and charity heads; and in some cases, the employers. It’s a positive step that Theresa May commissioned this report. It’s a travesty that it was such a long time coming.

The tactics shifted a while ago. Some of us stopped appealing to this government’s sense of altruism and began arguing that “it’s the economy, stupid.” Once again, it has been confirmed that the annual cost to the country of poor mental health is £99bn. This isn’t a revelation. I’ve been writing about it for four years, so have many others. The UK’s productivity is in the doldrums. The financial cost to employers is about £42bn.

Let me tell you about working with a severe, long-term mental illness (in my case, bipolar disorder). Bipolar disorder is a cyclical illness. Those cycles will vary, according to the illness’s subsets, from rapid cycling disorder to episodes that happen with years in between. For me, my condition is “managed” by medication and mental health services.

So it goes a bit like this: for a big chunk of each year I’ll probably spend time off. In the past couple of years that has meant stints in hospital, sometimes writing on zero sleep, or even having to tell an editor that I couldn’t file because of the small inconvenience of being sectioned. Then, the long walks to recuperate, the nurturing back to health. Then the return to work.

But I’m one of the lucky ones. When I joined the Guardian, a care plan was set up. It was distributed to my line managers so they knew the score and could notice any signs of impending episodes. I have had the support of three assigned HR personnel and also my colleagues, both senior and peers, formally and informally. They took the time to learn about my illness and how they could best understand and support it. All of this is the kind of thing employers should be doing as standard, and is numbered among the 40 recommendations made in the Thriving at Work report.

Last week, on a panel, someone asked me: “Is it worth it for employers?” It’s a fair question – undoubtedly sometimes I’m a pain in the arse. But how many of us have colleagues with no mental health problems but who are also a pain in the arse: underperforming, lazy, bullying, inefficient. I don’t think I’m any of those things. In my experience people with mental health problems are incredibly hard workers – they grab hold of those periods of wellness, desperate to make the most of them. Despite an illness that is chronic, I have achieved much in my professional life. Other people won’t have such chronic illnesses but experience a period of mental ill health and make a full recovery.

But here is where I am not lucky: my recent experiences of NHS mental health care characterise, as the report put it, “a lack of speedy access to mental health services”. The trust I am under has had some incredible professionals who have cared for me, but in many ways I have been catastrophically let down. I will always remember having a conversation with occupational health at work, who were fully supportive but wanted to know what measures I had in place before I returned to work.

They were flabbergasted when I said I had no formal measures in place, and that it wasn’t for want of trying. It was because our NHS has been reduced to skin and bone. Therapy waiting lists, as in my case, can last two years. Named psychiatrists are becoming rarer, being passed around services more common. Consistent support is almost nonexistent. There’s a crisis safety net when individuals reach the nadir, and that’s it. It doesn’t take a genius to realise this is not conducive to individuals working well and staying healthy – something the report noted.

Other welcome recommendations included a shoring up of the Equality Act 2010, and I’d add to that employers becoming more creative and flexible in their recruitment. If someone has been unwell, they may well have gaps in their CV. This might not have any impact on how competent they are, or how good a potential employee. Look at the number of successful people who have been open about their mental illness, from politicians to actors to company chief executives.

Finally, we need to broaden the mental health “debate” to include illnesses other than the more commonly experienced mental health difficulties. We need to properly arm employers with the information about conditions other than the thankfully now more understood depression and generalised anxiety disorder. If I hadn’t sat down with HR and made that care plan, I doubt they would have been remotely prepared or in a position to support me. The report has recommended core standards to change this, so employers “know what to do”. Good.

Unfortunately, some people will be too unwell to work – that’s the case for both mental and physical illness. The government must provide the benefits and care packages that are required. It’s what any moral society should do. Nobody chooses to be ill, and nobody should be punished for it. But for those with mental health problems who are able to work, we must do more to recruit and retain them. That way everyone benefits.

Hannah Jane Parkinson writes for the Guardian on pop culture, music, tech, football, politics and mental health