Be­hindthe­head­lines ‘I WAS BACK IN WORK AF­TER TRY­ING TO KILL

Wales On Sunday - - NEWS -

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

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