Mental health is a union issue

7 July 2009

Unions can play a pivotal role in breaking down workplace stigma about mental health and wellbeing, argues journalist Mark Brown.

I am a magazine editor. In the past, I have worked for a local council and managed a successful website. I also have a mental health difficulty.

Too often, the words ‘mental health difficulty’ or ‘mental health problem’ conjure images of people in grey hospital wards smoking cigarettes.

In fact, people with mental health difficulties are just people who have the same hopes, fears and wishes as everyone else but who face more challenges in achieving them.

I work long hours and achieve a lot, but I am only able to do this because my colleagues understand my condition, and because my company has been able to adapt my working conditions to work around the challenges that my condition presents.

At any one time, one in six of the UK’s workforce is experiencing a mental health difficulty. In your workplace, whether you know it or not, there are people experiencing mental health difficulties.

Some will feel confident enough to be open about the challenges that they face. Many others feel isolated and unable to voice their needs, frightened of what people may think about them and how people might judge them.

Some even fear that revealing that they face any difficulties at all will get them the sack.

Union reps are in a unique position to lead from the front, by setting an example and by informing and supporting.

As a strong presence in the workplace, reps can change attitudes and practices, making sure nobody is discriminated against and that no one feels unable to voice their needs.

Reps can challenge stigma

The stigma surrounding the experience of mental health difficulty is complicated. In part, it comes from the fact that few of us are experts in mental health, even if we experience mental health difficulties ourselves.

We can all think of negative representations of people with mental health difficulties in the media. For many people, mental health difficulty is something that seems alien and distant.

It is easy for us to understand how someone with a physical disability, such as a visual impairment or needing to use a wheelchair, might need adaptations in the workplace to enable them to work well.

But the understanding of mental health difficulties and how they affect people in employment has lagged behind.

What are mental health difficulties?

We all experience changes in our mood, perceptions or thinking form time to time.

Generally speaking, mental health difficulties are disturbances of mood, motivation or thinking that last over a period of time and that get in the way of everyday tasks and which cause someone distress or difficulty.

These disturbances might make it hard to concentrate, might make you tired or might make it so that tasks that you would normally do become more difficult.

They might even make the world seem frightening or might make us feel confused.

Any of these things might make it more difficult for someone to carry out their duties at work without support or adaptations.

What do people need at work?

If someone has a mental health difficulty that has a severe effect on things like their memory, vision or ability to concentrate, and which has lasted for a year or more, they will probably be considered disabled under the current Disability Discrimination Act.

This means that an employer must consider ‘reasonable adjustments’ to their employment and working conditions so that their disability does not put them at a disadvantage in carrying out their work.

For union reps, there is a clear duty to help and support people experiencing mental health difficulties.

The way the legislation works means that any reasonable adjustments made to a person’s working conditions have to be negotiated between them and their employer.

Where an employer is sympathetic, and an employee fully informed and able to express their needs, this works well.

Having a person in the workplace who others feel they can trust and who can help people experiencing difficulties by providing good advice and a sympathetic ear is invaluable.

Many people with mental health difficulties worry their employment is precarious and feel unprotected and vulnerable to criticism, victimisation and, in the worst case, being forced to leave their job if they become unwell.

The role for union reps in this process, and in encouraging a greater awareness of mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, is obvious.

And, from the point of view of equality and diversity, it is one that all union reps and activists should relish.

Mark Brown is editor of One in Four, a magazine that offers practical advice about mental wellbeing.

He has also recently researched and written the content for a new website Working for Wellness, which brings together information and advice about mental health and employment.

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