Mental Illness at Work: Still mostly in the closet?
Authors: Stephen Bevan
15 June 2012
In 1998 Kjell Magne Bondevik, the then Prime Minister of Norway, took several weeks away from work to receive respite and treatment for depression. Back then his public admission of having a condition that we know 1 in 6 workers also have, was greeting with a mixed reaction. Some of his political opponents were generous and sympathetic – refusing to make political capital. Others mumbled about the importance of coping under pressure in such a senior role and hinted that if the Prime Minster couldn’t stand the heat, he should get out of the kitchen. Mr Bondevik remains a member of a small club of high profile people in high profile, high pressure, jobs to talk openly about depression and mental illness.
The debate on mental health in the House of Commons yesterday was also a landmark on this journey. A handful of MPs talked bravely about their own experiences of mental illness, which is to be warmly welcomed. The debate highlighted that mental illness needs to be spoken about more openly and that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Yet despite the positivity of the coverage of the debate I still have two concerns.
First, the understandable focus on the mental health of people in big jobs with lots of responsibility risks deflecting attention from the really high risk groups in the workforce – those in jobs at the bottom end of organisations who have little control over decisions affecting their work, who are subject to verbal and sometimes physical abuse from customers or even colleagues, and those who now have an elevated concern about job security and personal finances. These people are still often the subject of ‘attendance management’ practices which, in some cases, fail to recognise the illness at all and promote ‘presenteeism’.
Second, while ‘coming out’ as a person with mental health issues is a very significant step, and one which certainly helps to educate and de-stigmatise mental illness, there is still a strong sense that it is only safe to do so once you have gone past your career peak. It would be good to think that speaking openly about a period of depression would be regarded as seriously as taking time off to get a fractured ankle fixed up. Earlier this year Antonio Horta-Osório, the CEO of Lloyds Banking Group linked his leave of absence through exhaustion in 2011 with the poor results of the Group, asking its remuneration committee to withhold his bonus as a consequence. He said, ‘I also acknowledge that my leave of absence has had an impact both inside and outside the bank including for shareholders. On that basis, I have decided to request that the board does not consider me for a 2011 bonus’. This felt to me like a strange way of holding himself to account.
So, while it’s now much more acceptable to discuss mental illness in polite company, it’s still not a mainstream business issue in most organisations. Until it is, we are going to find it hard to accept that providing the UK workforce with psychologically healthy and supportive workplaces is core to our future productivity and competitiveness.
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