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It’s time to tackle negative attitudes toward people with mental health conditions at work

Dr Tyna Taskila

23 July 2012

The pharmacological treatment of many severe mental health conditions has improved dramatically over the last decade. As a result, increasing numbers of people with a history of mental health disorders live fulfilling lives.

Studies have shown that many people with mental health conditions wish to work, but the employment rate of people with severe mental health disorders is very low. Approximately 20% are in employment, compared to 75-80% of the general population. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Mental Health and Work report (2000), employers’ prejudices against people with mental health conditions are one of the main barriers to employment.

Employed people returning to work after a period of psychiatric treatment are often on the receiving end of critical remarks, mistrust and a reluctance by colleagues to recognise their professional ability. As a result, people with mental health conditions often choose not to reveal their illness at workplace. They often ask their clinician’s advice on how to explain prolonged periods of joblessness on their CV, caused by recurrent psychotic episodes.

But it is not only employers’ negative attitudes which are problematic for people with mental health conditions wishing to return to work. Many also experience a lack of support from their medical team. In one British study which looked at clinician’s attitudes to the employment of people with psychosis (Marwaha et al. 2009), some felt they had little relevant training and limited confidence in the vocational services available to their clients.

Although many clinicians believed more people with severe mental health conditions could work, they felt that two thirds were either incapable of working or only able to do voluntary or sheltered work. Unfortunately, developments in medical treatment for mental health conditions are advancing at a faster pace than attitudes.

This week Channel 4 is tackling this important issue in their new season 4 Goes Mad, run with the support of mental health charities such as MIND and Rethink.  As the producer explained in The Guardian, the title and format of the season was chosen in a bid to challenge as many people’s misconceptions as possible. The producer said: "We were keen to make sure we get the widest impact to make sure that not just a few people watch it, the few people who were already enlightened." A core aim of the season is to challenge mental health stigma and discrimination with a focus on the work place, where discrimination around mental health is a persistent problem.

In one of the many programmes in the season, eight people will go through a round of interviews in which some candidates have a serious mental health conditions and some do not. At the end of the week all eight will be brought together for an interview, where employers will assess each individual to decide which candidates are the most capable. The employers are not informed during the selection process which of the candidates has a serious mental health condition.

The key issue the season hopes to make is, can we really tell if someone has a mental health condition? Often we can’t. Many people are able to function well at work and their condition may not be obvious to their employers. Some people hide their illness at the workplace for years, which is likely to cause them far more stress than actual work. It is time for us to challenge our own misconceptions about people living with mental health conditions.

At The Work Foundation we are undertaking research which outlines how healthcare professionals and employers can better support people with schizophrenia in the workplace. Our research is one of the many important steps towards a workplace in which people with mental health conditions can disclose and not face discrimination.

Comments in Chronological Order (Total 7 Comments)


27 Jun 2013 8:30PM

Just a note to further inform your mission.
As a boy of 15, I entered the steel industry of Cardiff. This was heavy, hands-on production, using the old methods of steel making and some years before the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act. It was hot, hard, dirty and very dangerous work, but we took a pride in it and the camaraderie was colourful, interesting and fun, and the weekly wage packet was relatively decent. Our flexible roles within the processes involved tacit and visceral knowledge and skills, requiring real understanding and trust in each other; our lives and limbs depended upon it.
What struck me amongst the various production gangs, back then, was the number of individuals who manifested certain nervous and personality idiosyncrasies. They were contending with mental distress. They were mentally ill. Most of these ones were suffering with what we would now recognise as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, acquired during the Second World War, either in service or as civilians. I quickly became used to working with these older men and easily trusted and depended upon them during very dangerous work processes. They were utterly accepted and valued characters. Very often, there would be a mental health crisis contained and managed by work mates. This would involve covering the job between us, whilst others gave support and reassurance. Some would go sick for a while, but would soon return. It was an accepted part of life then, in the nationalised industries.
Can it be that the sacrosanct bottom line, the exacting risk assessments, audits and efficiencies has overly sanitised and wiped out a natural culture of common sense and compassion? I have witnessed and experienced very effective working practices and responsibilities carried out by ones who would be written off today. It is claimed and exclaimed that society has become more enlightened concerning mental health and stigma, but we had a very special kind of humanity going on in those industries, with that generation. If such ones could be so productive in those circumstances, what could we expect in social enterprises and co-operatives? They’d have it for breakfast!


28 Jun 2013 11:15PM

The Work Foundation might be interested in the work of Hafal. Hafal is a client-led charity providing services for people with serious mental illness and their carers in all 22 counties of Wales. The above comment to Dr. Taskila's very interesting piece, has been posted on Hafal's Facebook page.


28 Mar 2014 9:18PM

I think mental illness is still not recognized in the work place and very little is being done to promote mental health conditions that effect so many people over the course of their lives.

John Meter

20 Jun 2014 4:58PM

I think the point about hiding a mental illness is very important. Research indicates that hiding a mental illness such as a phobia can be more problematic than the illness itself.


28 Jun 2014 8:35AM

I think the point about hiding a mental illness is very important. Research indicates that hiding a mental illness such as a phobia can be more problematic than the illness itself.

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22 Aug 2014 11:41PM

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12 Sep 2014 2:33PM

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