Behindtheheadlines ‘I WAS BACK IN WORK AFTER TRYING TO KILL
THE day after retail worker Georgia Lawson was discharged from hospital after attempting to take her life, she was back in work – fearful of what her employers would think otherwise.
Employers have to treat absence from work due to mental health issues the same as a physical condition, but the associated stigma means people often continue working and make their conditions worse rather than take time off.
Georgia feared being seen as “weak”, and when she did return to work for a former employer, she felt her managers had a “phenomenal” lack of understanding.
Georgia, 26, from Welshpool, said: “My experience of taking time off for mental health issues was always very stressful and I used to avoid being off unless I absolutely had to, even to the point where I was making my mental health worse by working when I should have been off, because I was so concerned about the consequences for missing work and losing my job.
“For example, the day after I was discharged from a hospital admission after attempting to kill myself, I was back in work because I knew I would be in a lot of trouble if I wasn’t.”
When Georgia returned to work she was faced with the same process as someone who missed work due to a cold.
A back-to-work meeting was held at the start of her first shift, where she had to explain why she was off and if she was fit to be back.
Following this meeting, if her absence percentage was above a certain amount it would automatically trigger an attendance review, which involved a meeting with two line managers, during which she had to talk in detail about every absence she had which led to her breaching the accepted limit.
At the end of these reviews it was decided what actions would be carried out; either a disciplinary, next steps or no further action.
Although legally equal, people with mental health conditions say they require a different approach by employers.
Georgia said: “There was abso- lutely no difference between the way they treated me and the way they treated people who missed work because of a cold.
“The lack of understanding was phenomenal. I actually had the store manager say that it sounded like I planned on being off again because I said that I was trying to get better but I just did not know what was around the corner. They acted like I was doing it on purpose and that I just wasn’t trying hard enough.
“They hounded me while I was off work, they would ring at least every other day asking when I was going to be back; they even rang me while I was in an inpatient facility.”
When Georgia returned from her longest mental health absence she was only aware two of her managers knew the circumstances.
But during the shift it became apparent that all of the line managers had been informed without her consent.
She said: “They all kept giving me sideways glances, treating me with kid gloves and asking me if I was OK every 15 minutes.
“This is not the treatment that people need when they are coming back to work. More than anything else we need normality.
“Coming back to work is a big step towards recovery and getting your life back on track, so it should be applauded and encouraged by an employer, instead of them focusing on the time you missed.
“I always used to feel awful for missing work and the guilt was immense, so the last thing I needed was to get back to work and be given more guilt and disciplinaries.”
Stigma and discrimination towards people with mental health issues is well documented and research shows these attitudes are common.
Beth Rees, who has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), only told her employers about her issues much later in her career.
Beth, 30, from Cardiff, said: “In the early stages of my career, I never admitted to my employers about my mental health and would tell them I had stomach aches, sickness and migraines, just so I didn’t have to face work. It was easier than admitting a weakness that no one could see. It felt more acceptable to feign a physical illness. I felt really guilty about it and very anxious about being found out.
“Later in my career, employers have been so much more accepting and thanked me for my honesty.
“When I told one of my employers early on in my career, they wanted proof of my depression in the form of a doctor’s note.
“I gave them the note and a week or so later, they asked if I was ‘well’ yet. Obviously I wasn’t and my work was suffering. I received verbal warnings and they said if I didn’t get my act together, they’d have to let me go. So I left.”
In the years since, Beth said employers have been much more accepting, and when she was recently diagnosed with BPD she said her workplaces have been “amazingly supportive”.
Although attitudes have changed, people are far less likely to be honest with their employers.
Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that in 2016 15 million days were taken off work due to stress, depression and anxiety. A further 800,000 days were lost due to “serious mental health problems”.
Cardiff University lecturer Dr Michelle Huws-Thomas said there is evidence showing people falsely report sickness as a physical illness rather than disclosing mental health problems.
A mental health academic for 14 years and a psychologist since 1991, Dr Huws-Thomas added there is evidence of “presenteeism” in the UK, where people continue to work despite mental or physical health problems and this is associated with increased mental health difficulties.
Dr Huws-Thomas said: “People with mental health difficulties rec- ognise and internalise [stigma] and develop what is known as ‘self stigma’, where people feel ashamed and try to suppress or ignore their pain – which has been linked to the worsening of experiences.
“This is one reason why people may feel ashamed to take time off work. Fear of not being taken seriously, guilt, isolation and fear of mental health issues being used against the person are other common reasons why people still work while feeling mentally unwell.
“Because symptoms of anxiety and depression may be less obvious than physical illnesses, employers and managers may not always pick up [clues] when someone is struggling, such as subtle changes in behaviour, mood and how they interact with colleagues.
“Employers have a key role in supporting well-being and poor management may exacerbate or trigger difficulties.”
Georgia said experiences like her own proves that stigma still persists.
She said: “I think there is still a stigma about taking time off for mental illness.
“People are scared to be honest because of being seen as weak or incapable by their employer, and having everyone look at them differently.
“I was honest with my work from my very first absence due to mental illness, it is a part of who I am so I knew there was no point in hiding it from them because it was bound to come out eventually.
“There were only a couple of times where I told them it was something physical instead of the truth and that was purely because I really didn’t want to face the aggro of them saying that I couldn’t keep doing this and I needed to sort myself out.
“I actually got fewer disciplinaries for my physical absences than my mental illness ones!”
Beth said stigma still exists because many people see taking time off for mental health issues as “weak”.
She said: “I felt this for years and did not feel confident in my abilities because of it.
“However, if people feel they can’t open up, it’s hard for employers to
‘The lack of understanding was phenomenal’ – Georgia Lawson, 26 Beth Rees was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder