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.