“The Canary in the Birdcage” - The hidden employee assets in your workplace

Research released today by the Priory Group illustrates that mental health stigma in the workforce is a huge cause for concern.  Over half of the population surveyed would consider self-employment as a result of workplace mental health stigma. Surely it is time that UK employers sit up and take note?

The Priory spoke with successful businessman Paul Booth, who has been affected by bipolar disorder during his career.  He is an outspoken advocate for mentally healthy work environments, and decided to reveal his insight exclusively to the Priory Group.  He explained to us that those employees suffering from mental illnesses are a huge asset to the working environment; they can act as “canaries in the birdcage”. 

Mental health sufferers – the front line against stress

“2010 was the anniversary of the Pretoria Pit Disaster,” Paul explained. This was the second worst coal mining accident ever to occur in England, and one which affected Paul’s family personally.  “My grandmother woke up to find that every male from the surrounding four or five streets, from the ages of 13 to 61, had died that morning”.  This huge loss led him to wonder how these workers had been protected from gas explosions:  “why was there no warning sign? In the old days, they would use a canary in a birdcage.” 

This led Paul to his insight about the unseen and similarly destructive presence of stress in the workplace. “I thought, well, gas in a coal mine – you can’t smell it, you can’t see it, which is a bit like stress at work.”  He wonders “where are the canaries” in our workplaces?  Who can flag up the threat of stress before it affects the entire environment?  Employees with mental health conditions are those alarm bells; those warning devices. “We are the canaries.  We are the people who will show first if the environment isn’t conducive in terms of stress – the first person who will suffer is the person who is not particularly resilient”.

Increasing environmental wellbeing

Those with a mental health condition, then, are some of the most important employees in any working team.  If the workplace is not balanced enough to create a comfortable environment for someone with a mental health illness, then it is also unhealthy for all other employees.

But, currently, such is the stigma of mental health conditions that an employer may have no idea that their ‘canaries’ are sounding the alarm. 

In a recent @Priory Group twitter survey we asked “have you ever had to call in sick because of a mental health condition but told your work you were suffering from something else? If so, why did you make up another illness?”  We were overwhelmed with responses, many of which were shocking in their revelations of isolation and stigma in the workplace.  Some of the responses are listed below:

  • “I had depression at times, but did not want to let on because it’s not viewed well…they would judge you.  I was also in a temp role so could not afford to take that risk.”
  • “I suffer from severe depression and anxiety.  I’ve told my current employer about my condition but I used to tell my previous employer that I was suffering from physical illness as I was terrified of being judged, feeling abnormal and losing my job.”
  • “I am currently experiencing severe depression and anxiety, for which I am receiving treatment.  I have occasionally had to ring in sick or not accepted shifts offered to me. I said I was having problems with a wisdom tooth. I am too embarrassed to disclose the real reason, as I would be worried about not getting offered any more shifts”.

Is self-employment the answer?

The Priory Group discovered a real sense of unease felt within the part-time sector.  77% of those polled who worked part-time worried that they wouldn’t be able to tell their employer about a mental health condition, fearing their employer would respond negatively. So is self-employment the answer? Dr Richard Bowskill, Consultant Psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital Brighton and Hove, comments:

“I have patients with bipolar disorder or depression who have chosen to be self-employed, and I suppose the other step related to that is voluntary work. A lot of people who have been unable to work due to mental health problems choose voluntary work as a way to get back into employment.”

And yet, our research showed that over 80% of self-employed respondents would worry about an employer’s response if they disclosed a mental health condition. 

Changes for the better

So, how can we make any working environment more accepting towards those employees with mental health conditions?

Paul Booth believes there are two ways to move forwards towards a mindful workplace: improving people’s defences and resilience against stress, and creating a mentally healthy work environment.  He points out:

“If you really want to have a well-motivated workforce, they have to be happy and content at home, and at work.  What are you doing as an organisation to look after the welfare of employees outside of the work environment?”

Priory research showed that the 18-24 and 25-34 year old groups had the highest level of mental health diagnoses.  These age groups were also more likely to tell their employer about a mental health problem than any other age range polled.  Does this mean that the younger generations are becoming more and more accepting of the realities of mental health illness?  These two age groups were also the most likely to consider self-employment because of workplace stigma.

This may be a positive omen for the future - that the younger members of the workforce are unwilling to sit quietly, silently accepting mental health stigma in the workplace – they’d rather go it alone.  But what happens if we do go it alone?  Dr Bowskill explains that “there’s a flexibility that you need sometimes when you have mental health problems”.  He adds, however, that “if sufferers do get more depressed and they can’t function, they don’t have all the benefits of being in employment”- there is no safety net for those working for themselves.

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