I attended a “Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace” lunch this week with colleagues from across London. The lunch was to raise awareness and help managers identify mental illness in the workplace. The presenters shared a distressing statistic from a 2014 Mind report that, “40 percent of employers view workers with mental health problems as a ‘significant risk’.”
The severity of the report’s language shocked me. A risk is something genuinely threatening or dangerous that could adversely affect an organization; risk isn’t meant to describe and define individuals with mental health problems. Often those battling mental illness show extreme resilience and resourcefulness.
I wrote earlier this year about how I unintentionally revealed my anxiety disorder at work. I didn’t have time to stop and consider whether my employer would now see me as a liability. My anxiety spewed messily all over the office and there was no place for me to hide. Since then, and initially more by default than intention, I have become increasingly vocal about the need to support mental health in the workplace.
But even without the benefit of personal experience, I would never have believed that Mind report statistic. I would never question someone’s capabilities or commitment based on a mental, or physical, illness.
Two nights later, my work held a panel discussion on the state of mental health in the UK. The panel included representatives from government, the pharmaceutical industry, and a patient advocate with former experience using the mental health system. The room full of professionals and students were captivated by their differing opinions and observations.
Statistics were again discussed and there was a lively debate about legislation and government funding. However, it was the patient advocate that spoke to my heart and guts. He argued that we are asking the wrong questions when it comes to providing support for those with mental illnesses. He said that we need to recognize that people “who have been through stuff know stuff” and we need to acknowledge the leadership qualities of those suffering.
It is still unfortunately rare to hear “mental illness” described in relation to “leadership”.
Imagine if those 40 percent of employers would understand mental health is just one part of a person. Employers are losing the chance to hire diverse and empathetic leaders. Workplaces need these people to create supportive environments and push for changes.
More importantly, imagine if people suffering from mental illnesses believed in their own value and capabilities. I struggle with this every day of my professional life; I second guess myself and underestimate my resilience. Yet the reality is my anxiety has made me a stronger person with different perspectives that are beneficial to work. It has unquestionably made me a better leader.
I have spent the past week talking about mental health and mental illness with my colleagues and peers. It has been exhausting at times, but it has reminded me how important these conversations are to end the stigma surrounding mental illness. There is so much misunderstanding and fear.
At the end of the lunch, I shared my experience of anxiety in the workplace with the presenters. They said they were sorry. I appreciate their sentiment, but I don’t need people to be sorry. Sorry implies that mental illness needs an apology. Mental illness needs advocacy, change and understanding, but not an apology.
At the end of the panel, the patient advocate reminded the audience that everything in life is about human meaning and purpose. I haven’t stopped thinking about his comment. I think it means that mental illness is just one part of being human and that we are limitless in our potential. I think it also means that we need to connect with each other, even when it’s difficult. We need each other to find purpose.
See the person, not the illness.
About Erin Hallett
Erin Hallett is a higher education professional living in London. Originally from Victoria, British Columbia she moved to London in 2015 to pursue her dream of an international career. Erin is passionate about writing and hopes to use her voice to raise awareness for mental health issues.