The nature of having bipolar has meant I’ve had quite a few, varied jobs. I’ve worked in retail, childcare and for the local council. One thing each of these jobs has in common is whilst there, I’ve experienced mental health stigma.
Whilst working in childcare, I was a supervisor of a team in charge of a room of toddlers. I had been struggling with my mental health and at that point didn’t have a diagnosis of bipolar. I had been what I now know is manic and hadn’t been sleeping. My mood came crashing down and I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I was late for work one day and was brought in for a meeting with the manager and owner. Earlier in the year I’d had my probationary period extended because of the amount of sick days I’d taken. I was convinced I was about to be sacked. I decided to be honest with them and explained that I was depressed. They told me I couldn’t work that day and sent me home because,
“You would be a danger to the children.”
I couldn’t return until I was “No longer depressed.”
When I worked for the local council as a family worker, I again faced discrimination. Again I was having difficulties with my mental health and had to take time off. I felt that I wasn’t able to properly cope with adult life, that I was a failure. A certain colleague would make snide remarks about my time off, saying,
“At least I’m actually here all the time, not like some people.” Or,
“Some people are just not able to cope with stress as well as others.”
He would look at me directly as he made these comments, a smirk on his face.
I applied for a job at an NHS day nursery. The interview went well and I was offered the job, subject to references. I was ecstatic and went out and celebrated with my boyfriend. A few days later I received a phone call from the manager of the nursery. The first thing she said in an abrupt, unsettling tone,
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Naturally I was confused and asked what she meant.
“Your sickness record is very poor, you should have explained this at interview.”
I knew there was nothing I could say, and my heart sank. I didn’t get the job. At the time I had no diagnosis so felt I couldn’t pursue them for being discriminatory. To me, I was simply a broken person.
Near the end of last year I had to take time off work because I was struggling with a deep depression. When I returned the manager was acting very strangely. He hardly spoke to me and didn’t ask me how I was feeling or welcomed me back. I had a conversation with another member of staff who I found out also had Bipolar. It felt good to know I wasn’t alone at work. However, I was given a word of warning.
“Just be careful, I was nearly sacked because of my Bipolar.” I was shocked and concerned.
“The manager doesn’t get it. I was told to cheer up because I was bringing the rest of the team down. We had a massive argument and he nearly fired me.”
I instantly felt worried that I would have to paint a mask on at work every time I felt unwell. I then understood the managers reaction when I returned to work. I knew that Bipolar was not seen as a legitimate illness and I was deemed a nuisance for suffering from it.
These are just a few examples of the many times I’ve faced stigma at work. If I wrote down every time someone made a passing comment, or a manager shouted down the phone at me for being ill when I’d called in sick, this would be a mountain of a blog post.
So what can we do?
It feels impossible at the time to do anything when you’re facing stigma at work, but there are options.
If it’s a colleague, speak to them first, if you can. They might not realise you have a mental health condition or have little understanding of what it’s like to live with mental illness. I know this is not always an option, I have been there myself, so I would speak to a manager, Many organisations have a mental health policy or a policy on bullying and harassment. If you are a member of a union, they can give advice and support. If it’s your employer discriminating against you, they can advise what your rights are and what to do next.
The Equality Act 2010 protects anyone being discriminated against because of their age, gender, race or disability. According to Time To Change, “To get protection under the Equality Act, you have to show that your mental health problem is a disability (that it has a substantial, adverse, and long term effect on your normal day-to-day activities). The law covers you during recruitment, employment and if you are being dismissed for any reason, including redundancy. Employers must make reasonable adjustments to work practices, and provide other aids and adaptations, for disabled employees.”
If you are being treated unfairly at work because of your mental health condition, this could be discrimination and against the law. The Mind website has extensive information about your rights at work and what to do if you are being discriminated against. They also provide legal information and general advice on mental health related law.
This is all information I wish someone had given me ten years ago. I often felt alone and isolated at work because of my mental illness, not realising I could encourage change in the workplace or take action against those that hurt me