Thriving At Work? 300,000 Beg To Differ

The independently-executed, ironically-named Thriving at Work report has revealed that many of us – 300,000 to be exact – are definitely not thriving in the workplace, and instead are losing our jobs due to mental illness.

This is a lose-lose situation: employers are failing to keep their colleagues healthy, witnessing them succumb to illness and consequently facing the stress and strain of organising sick leave and cover work. Employees themselves are being punished for an ailment that is not their fault. Already stricken with mental illness, to then suffer job loss or discrimination at work must be unimaginable.

And to top it off is the extortionate “£99 billion” being lost by the economy every single year as a result of this.

Nobody is winning – so why is nothing changing?

At University, a student with mental health issues is referred to Disability Support Services. A mental health advisory team is involved; a Disability Referral Form is put together and forwarded to all who teach the student; exemptions and extensions are implemented, counselling is offered, mentoring is advised. A bubble of care is created that, whilst not eliminating the problem, enables a student to manage their condition and thus fare well in other areas of university life.

“The economic uncertainty of the last decade has had a detrimental effect upon our mental health”

To leave this kind of support system upon graduation and to be thrown – seemingly untethered and unsupported – into the big wide world of work is not only terrifying, it’s dangerous. We already know that young people are particularly susceptible to mental illness, and that “three-quarters of mental health issues present themselves before the age of twenty-four”. The economic uncertainty of the last decade has had a detrimental effect upon our mental health, with the promise of job security a thing of the past and even getting on the career ladder harder than ever.

“Workplace mental health support is stuck in the days where depression was discussed in a whisper and anxiety laden with taboo”

Yet support for mental health has not progressed with the times. It hasn’t taken into account the modern-day pressures burdening our daily lives, from financial frets to social anxiety and the up-and-coming phenomenon of loneliness. Workplace mental health support is stuck in the days where depression was discussed in a whisper and anxiety laden with taboo. Admittedly, this stigma still exists, but as a society we have come on in leaps and bounds when it comes to talking about our mental health.

So why hasn’t the employer kept up? There are countless surveys and statistics that show failings in the way companies deal with mental health, creating a sobering image of the world of work which young people are entering into.

Beat, the UK’s national eating disorder charity, reported that 40% of those surveyed felt their employers’ impact on their recovery was explicitly unhelpful, whilst two-thirds were unable to access support whilst in the workplace. Even more worryingly, Rethink Mental Illness found that 83% of employers were concerned that someone with a mental illness would not cope with the demands of a job.

“Mental illness does not make you incompetent or unemployable”

Since the report made headlines, the news has been peppered with personal experiences of mental health in the workplace, some good – some bad – but all with the overriding message being that mental illness does not make you incompetent or unemployable.

It is more than possible to manage a mental health condition and flourish at work, but only if the right support system is in place. The very commission of the report by Theresa May was undoubtedly a step forward, and the consequent recommendations are promising and potentially transformative.

But we all know actions speak louder than words. So we wait with bated breath.

Laura Hanton


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