Ruby Wax Is Right- You Don’t Have To Tell Your Employers You’re Mental

Ruby Wax has caused a minor kerfuffle by suggesting that those us whom struggle with our mental health should keep it quiet from employers, and in fact, lie to them in order to protect ourselves.

How many of us have had, “a cold” when general misery has flattened us to our beds? Had dodgy trains when it’s really been a panic attack?

In a perfect world, we’d be able to tell the truth. And our employers would be able to respond compassionately and sensibly. But it’s not a perfect world. Nor is it some post-stigma world as Eleanor Morgan suggests in her response to Ruby Wax:

For Wax, a prominent advocate of mental health awareness and visibility, to tell those of us who experience a mental health problem – one in four in the UK each year – that we’re still stigmatised seems a significant regression. Because as a nation we’ve got much better at not looking on those with mental health problems as weird.

If this has been your experience, then frankly, you are privileged. You are lucky. Mental health problems and the people who experience them are still stigmatised. Just because we’re a bit better now doesn’t mean there aren’t people collapsing under the weight of the word, “psycho”, thinking of which imaginary family member they went to care for in that gap in their CV, having obvious self harm scars people frown at and comment on, being laughed at in the street by your neighbours, having friends and strangers speculate on their mental health when they leave the house or spend their benefits money on something other than bread and water as meaning that they, “can’t be that depressed”, writing their DLA form knowing they’re fucked anyway because in this shiny, happy, post stigma world, mental health problems are being written out of the script altogether and it’s just mind over matter, just Not Trying Hard Enough. It’s hard to know which is worse- being written off as a psycho forever, or your experiences being flatly denied in crazy-making gymnastics which make you wonder if you imagined them all, too.

I’m privileged. I’m sure most of you know this, but I work for Mind, the mental health charity (and it goes without saying that this blog is my opinion, not theirs). My manager is, as you’d expect, very good about mental health and they know all about mine, and what to look out for if I’m getting unwell (thanks to a WRAP). I have reasonable adjustments and understanding for my issues (I’m not too sharp early in the morning due to medication, for example).  In my case, I feel valued partly due to my experiences, and not in spite of them. And that makes me very lucky.  Although we want to work towards a world where this is the rule, not the exception, there’s no way of knowing what your workplace is until you get there.

And it’s fine not to want to tell.  There’s so much talk of, “fighting stigma”, as if that makes us all these foot soldiers. You don’t have to be. You don’t have a responsibility to disclose to, “fight stigma”. You don’t have a responsibility to anybody else but yourself and you should never feel bad that you want to protect yourself. You aren’t failing anybody, letting any side down, by not wanting to be open about your experiences or diagnosis. The reason celebrities can come out and speak is often because they have a lot less to lose (but even then, look at the reception different celebrities get, how struggling with addiction and depression is treated differently from just depression, how Paul Gascoigne is an object of ridicule whereas Stephen Fry isn’t, and in particular, look at the attitudes towards women who speak out as being trivial, hysterical or overemotional).

And things may be evolving, as Eleanor Morgan says. The discourse may be changing around depression and anxiety- but it’s not so much around personality disorders and psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia. Could we change it by opening up? Maybe- but often the shittiest response is in the mental health system itself both to its patients and its employees, and if it’s been demonstrated to you time and time again that yes, you actually do have something to fear, and you will be treated badly, how is someone going to get the confidence to open up generally?

Of course, if you need support and understanding, it is better to tell. If it becomes unavoidably obvious, it’s better to be honest. But although Eleanor says,

Here are the facts: it’s illegal to be dismissed from your job because of a mental health problem. The Equality Act, bringing together the laws that were found in the Disability Discrimination Act, Race Relations Act and Sex Discrimination Act, protects people from discrimination on the grounds of disability. If you have a mental health problem you may not think of yourself as disabled, but if it has a significant impact on your day-to-day life for a period of time, it will probably be considered a disability under this law. It’s a very detailed law, but Mind provides a legal briefing about how it works.

Most important, an employer should not treat you unfavourably because of a disability, and must make “reasonable adjustments to work practices, and provide other aids and adaptations” – for example, being flexible about hours, and temporarily allowing you to work part-time, or have a period of sick leave with the clear reassurance that you are still valued as an employee. If you feel as if you’ve been fired under the cloak of “something else”, chances are you will be protected.

It is extremely hard to prove you’ve been sacked for mental illness, as well as extremely time consuming and legalese. If you’re a temp, you might feel like you have little recourse, likewise if you’re on a zero hour contract and they stop giving you hours. I’m neither wealthy nor successful but i have been fired for my mental health. I was a temp, and there was an extremely specific search to this blog that only my employer could have made, and the next day, I was fired. They just “didn’t need me” anymore. I knew they’d found my blog and read it and that was that, but I couldn’t prove it. And many people with mental health issues will be in unstable employment where it’s tougher to know your rights, or harder to fight for them. And as for, “getting back on your feet”, as Eleanor puts it, no matter how much we want to say mental health and physical health are the same, they aren’t. They should have parity of esteem, but mental illness affects people differently than physical health. You may get, “back on your feet” but have lost your family and friends in the process, and you might have to be on medication for the rest of your life that will affect you physically and cognitively. In a lot of cases, you can be well, “recovered” but need adjustments for the treatment.

Those adjustments may not be made for you, either, due to the nature of your job. I left my nursing degree due to being told to suck it up- I had to work nights and late earlies which meant I wasn’t able to take my medication and invariably I became ill. There was little practical support and no adjustments (and that isn’t even accounting for the shit attitudes I encountered as a mental health nursing student with mental health issues, including a staff member grabbing my scarred arms in front of a patient and shouting at me). My experiences might not be reflective as a whole, but it also shows that there isn’t a cohesive approach to helping employees (or students) with a mental health issue.

The onus on fighting stigma shouldn’t just be on us, but on the people who treat us, the people whom we work for, the people who love us. Whereas Ruby Wax compares mental health to gay rights, and it was gay people who fought for those rights often to a huge personal cost (and their lives), we should be able to count on the backup of those institutions for whom our diagnosis, in one way or another, matters. If you want to tell, if you want to be the one to challenge it, if your workplace is trying, then tell. It can definitely be a powerful thing to take that control instead of worrying about being, “found out”. But please, don’t feel bad if you don’t. Don’t feel like you’re buying into a, “regressive” idea, because you aren’t. It’s okay not to tell.

And employers who are crap with this stuff- you’re missing out on some amazing people. It’s your loss.

19 Responses

  1. Being bipolar myself, I realized in the employment world your perspective employer is not allowed to ask you about your mental capacity. That is considered prejudice and is against the law. Stigma is a label but it shouldn’t define who you are as a person

  2. I’m a counselor, and this is an issue that frustrates me to no end. Too many people are (1) qualified to do the work, regardless of their disability, and (2) have their disability exacerbated by stigma, limited resources and no recourse. Glad there are people fighting for this important remedy.

    • appliedfaithorg… Since you are a counselor maybe you can help me. I am mistreated due to my mental illness by the local ER n asheville NC Mission Hospital staff placed me into a room to they said look out for me for a while. For one that was not why i was there i was at the er over a neck sprain or strain never did get any medical attention due to the stigma I have on me due to my mental illness. I was put into a room had an exray then sat there for 4 and a half hours before i finally got up ent to the front desk well nurses station and ask when is the doctor coming to se me. One thing led to another and I was they say escorted out but i call it abusively restrained. I was carried out by 6 renta cops and the nurse that said that i had assaulted her which was impossible due to the fact i was being carried by arms and legs so i was restrained and i went out to the police car with scratches bruises and the fact that the nurse said she hit me noone seen it but then its their jobs to not see anything that would have helped me they work for the hospital not the patients. i would love to tell more but i go to court tomorrow and i will spend 6months to 4 years in jail over one nurse who was angry that i called her prejudice nature towards me. and I went to jail after i was released from jail the same day i went into the hospital one week later over the stigma and abuse i had been given and to top it off she had me placed in jail no marks on her i had 23 bruises along with so much of my hair pulled out that i had to have it cutt.

      • Hi April,

        Please know you are loved. God loves you and I love you. Tomorrow our recovery will be praying for you, and I’ll start now right now.

        It sounds like your situation is way outside of my ability to help you directly or as a counselor. But I am willing to share with you some of what the Bible tells us. As you face what sounds like a serious trial, live one day at a time, one moment at a time. We can get peace as we accept that hardship is a pathway to peace. God is right there with you, and He will heal your life from His never-ending Grace.

        Do you pray? Do you read His Word, so you can hear His voice? If not, start today. Start with the Gospel of John and take in the power of His being Fully God, and Fully Man. Recovery programs can help you with your journey, too.

        Finally, remember that life, happiness, health and your future are in front of you. Focus on what is in front of you.

        You cannot change the past, so you will have to let it go. Pray it away, and leave it gone.

        Recovery happens in your windshield… Not your rear-view mirror.

        God bless you. Know that you are in prayers!

        • Thank you and I have started reading the book of John as helped me so much already not to say that things are great but i am not sitting around with tears streaming down my face all day long. God Bless

  3. It’s really a shame that employers are so awkward with this, because some conditions can be significantly improved with minor changes to the work environment. For example, if someone has anxiety or panic attacks, don’t put them in the back corner of a row where there’s no escape if something happens that triggers an attack.

  4. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I volunteer with “Time to Change”, and as such challenge mental health stigma. As you say, being open about my mental health has been a powerful thing for me.

    On the other hand, I feel Ruby Wax is being realistic about the current climate. When I was looking for work, if they asked about my health on the form, I was open about it.

    I reckon most of those forms went straight into the bin.

  5. Yes.

  6. I appears that worker protections laws against discrimination are stricter in the UK than here in the States. Even though we have similar laws, it’s harder to enforce and expensive and like you mentioned, it’s very hard to prove that you were fired because you have a mental illness. In the US, unless you can afford it or if you have a very understanding workplace, we do not, under any circumstance tell our employers about whatever chronic illness we have (mental related or not), it can and will be used against you, if you don’t get fired you lose out on projects and promotions on the perception that you can’t handle it. The fact is that most employers are too smart and outrun these anti-discrimination laws, they can make it look like it’s about your disability, mental illness or any illness and about your job ‘performance’, which in most occupations is impossible to prove otherwise.

  7. Re. being fired: employers only have to make ‘reasonable’ adjustments. Reasonable varies from job to job, and in many jobs, that’s not sufficient. Even the kindest, most helpful of bosses may simply not be able to make enough adjustments. Also, you can be sacked on capability grounds if you cannot, with such adjustments as are reasonable, do your job. So where you could do your job with reasonable adjustments, it often isn’t difficult for an employer to get away with arguing the adjustments you need aren’t all reasonable and therefore they have to let you go on capability grounds.

  8. Very well written and very true, mental health problems in the workplace is common, but not welcome. This should change as many people with mental health problems have so much to give.

  9. […] blog written by Seaneen for her blog ‘Being Mentally Interesting’ in an entry called: Ruby Wax is Right-You Don’t Have to Tell Your Employers You’re Mental. In the US, employees with mental illness are protected under the ADA (American with Disabilities […]

  10. Reblogged this on whatmomma.

  11. Great post! The fact that people “shouldn’t have to” hide their MH illness doesn’t equate with “shouldn’t”. If you’re not lucky enough to have an employer who gets it, why should you open yourself to the stress and mistreatment? I’m very lucky on 2 grounds – my employer has a great HR department who have been supportive and proactive, and my job is creative and my bouncing off the walls in the the throws of hypomania are often just seen as being creative. However, this is the only employer I’ve ever had where I would have been honest about being bipolar. And in being open about it at work I’ve found other employees open up about their MH too – so now there’s an unofficial self-support group which is truss cool. But I really feel for those who have to struggle on in silence, and I think it’s up to those of us who are fortunate to be supported to push against the stigma side of things. Thanks for the awesome post!

  12. No u are right u dont have to i do tel ppl just so they know why i b off some days but i think its persons chose to tel

  13. hi this is a great website that you have, thank you 4 sharing it with us.

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  16. Hey buddy your old post help me to come over some courageous steps,,thanks…

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