Would you tell your boss you have mental health issues?By ANNA MAGEE
A cult drama has brought this dilemma to primetime TV, but with one in four of us likely to experience a mental crisis at some time, it’s a question we all need to address
In Homeland, Carrie (played by Claire Danes) has bipolar
Carrie’s situation is extreme, yet a third of women employed in Britain report experiencing mental health problems such as bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – and face the challenge of managing it in the workplace.
Danes’s character – back on our screens now – is a troubled genius. Her flashes of insight and ability to see connections that colleagues can’t are clearly portrayed as the flipside to crippling lows.
Whether having bipolar disorder (where mania or ‘high’ episodes alternate with deep depressions) can bring moments of brilliance and productivity is the subject of debate. Stephen Fry has said his bipolar disorder is part of what makes him such a great writer, and earlier this year research at Lancaster University found that people with bipolar disorder reportedly experienced increased creativity and clarity of thought during manic periods.
Natasha Tracy, 34, who was diagnosed with the condition at 22 and writes a blog, Bipolar Burble, agrees: ‘During a manic episode, I am much more productive.’ But experts warn against glamorising supposed upsides. ‘More often bipolar is highly destructive,’ says Dr Ian Drever, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital, Woking. ‘Manic episodes are characterised by flitting from one unfinished idea to the next, impulsiveness, overconfidence, overspending and being gruff or rude to colleagues,’ he says.
‘During my last mania, I booked a trip to New York, which I couldn’t afford,’ says Sam, 31, a photographer diagnosed with bipolar disorder six years ago. ‘While I was there, I was on a high, shooting at a festival. I left all my gear and pushed through a crowded field to get a shot. My kit, worth £4,000, was stolen, which stopped me working for six months. When clients rang up to book me I could hear myself being irritable and overbearing, but couldn’t stop myself. One said, “Do you realise who you’re talking to?” and I remember thinking, “I don’t care.”’
‘We send staff on regular “resilience” training days where they learn to spot early signs of mental health problems and manage their moods, stresses – and successes – in healthy ways’
Like Carrie, half of those who experience mental health problems keep it secret from their bosses. Natasha Tracy, who works as a software documentation contractor, doesn’t blog under her real name as potential clients invariably Google her. ‘If they found out I have bipolar, they wouldn’t hire me,’ she explains.
Depression sufferer Ruby Wax, who recently made a documentary for Channel 4 designed to tackle the taboo of mental illness in the workplace, believes telling your boss is a risk. ‘I wouldn’t tell an employer because mental illness still comes with an enormous stigma,’ she says.
When Sonia, 38, developed depression, she was deputy manager of a restaurant and it didn’t occur to her not to tell her boss. ‘I assumed that it would go no further,’ she says, ‘but when I came back after six weeks off, he’d told my team. Once, I wasn’t smiling and he yelled, “Haven’t you taken your happy pills?” I’d worked 80 hours that week and anyone would be not smiling. Any time I was snappy people would say, “Sonia can’t handle it.” They lost all respect for me.’
When Sonia started her current job in administration, she was worried about telling her manager. ‘The contract said I would be having an occupational health assessment, so I called my manager and blurted it all out,’ she says. ‘She said she had had her own experience with depression and couldn’t see it being a problem. It made me more determined to do a great job.’
The stigma is changing, Dr Drever believes, albeit slowly. ‘For every one of my patients who doesn’t tell their boss, another five do and are shocked when they say things like, “I/my brother/my wife had that. Let me know what I can do,”’ he says. In fact, one in four Britons will have a mental health problem in any given year and, according to mental health charity Mind, most of us will somehow be affected by it through loved ones or colleagues’ experiences.
It’s your choice whether to tell your employer, says Sue Baker, national director of the Time to Change campaign, which was set up by mental health charities Mind and Rethink to tackle the stigma of mental illness at work. ‘If you do, they are legally obliged to consider making reasonable adjustments to your work.’ This might include allowing more flexibility to have therapy or letting you work from home during stressful times.
When Katie, 44, a data controller, was diagnosed with OCD four years ago, telling colleagues helped her cope. ‘They would get annoyed at me for asking endless questions in meetings, which was part of my OCD. When I told them, they got used to it and now it’s not an issue,’ she says.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, half of those who have depression will only experience it once, and the recovery rate for bipolar disorder is 90 per cent.
John Binns, a partner at accounting and consultancy firm Deloitte, who took three months off with depression, believes that mental health issues ‘often happen to the best people. Supporting their mental wellbeing means they can recover and deliver great benefits to the company.’ He adds, ‘We send staff on regular “resilience” training days where they learn to spot early signs of mental health problems and manage their moods, stresses – and successes – in healthy ways.’
For Ruby Wax, a short daily ritual helps keep her demons at bay. ‘I do mindfulness training for a few minutes anywhere I have the time – on the tube, in bed. Sitting and watching my thoughts lets me see my emotional landscape so I can spot the early signs that my depression is coming back,’ she says.
‘Spotting early signs are important,’ says Dr Drever. ‘These could include decreased concentration or becoming increasingly tired or unusually energised or irritable. By resting or seeing your doctor, you might avoid a relapse.’
In series two of Homeland, Carrie has returned after six months in treatment. Sue Baker points out that, unlike Carrie, most people with mental health problems aren’t the mad genius: ‘We are doctors, teachers, bus drivers, MPs and shop assistants, who may or may not have more talent and brilliance than our non-mentally ill colleagues. Either way, with the right treatment and support we can lead full, active lives.’
Mental health at work: your rights
The Equality Act of 2010 means most employers have no right to ask for information about your health when recruiting. However, in an interview, they can ask whether you have the ability to do key elements of the job. There is also a specific exception in vetting applicants for work in national security such as intelligence services. If your mental illness has lasted 12 months or more you are likely to have rights as an employee under the Equality Act. Telling your boss, occupational health or human resources department will mean your employer is obliged to consider making ‘reasonable adjustments’ to your working life to help keep you well. You can ask them not to tell colleagues, but they may need to tell the human resources department.If you are in crisis, for support contact Rethink, tel: 0300 5000 927; Sane, tel: 0845 767 8000; Mind, tel: 0300 123 3393. Ruby Wax is the patron of mental health support website blackdogtribe.com. Homeland is on Sunday nights at 9pm on Channel 4
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