Volume 1 of a series on mental health.
I lost a job in December, 2017 due to a panic attack.
I could feel the wave of anxiety washing over me before I got to work. It became more and more overwhelming and unmanageable by the minute. My breathing became laboured, and though it was a cold winter day, I was sweating before I walked through the front door.
As I began my work the multitasking became impossible. I was so frightened of failing I ceased to function and my worst fear was realized. I was working in the kitchen of a fast food restaurant and I made errors I hadn’t made before. The simplest of tasks became impossible to achieve and my boss became irate. This exacerbated my anxiety and I was in full-scale panic mode. My boss got fed up with me and took over my kitchen duties. She sent me to the sink to wash dishes. Before I went to the sink, where theres were no dishes to wash, I went to the washroom and cried. I felt humiliated and ashamed. I felt like a failure. I had a job that a 17-year-old can excel at but I couldn’t cope with its demands. When I disposed of some paper towel in a wastebasket located in the kitchen, my boss caught sight of me there and shouted, “I don’t want you in the kitchen right now!” which made me feel even worse about myself.
After washing dishes for a few minutes my boss summoned me to the hallway outside the kitchen to discreetly inform me that she was sending me home.
I went home feeling like a failure. I was 40-years-old and I failed at flipping burgers.
My “weekend”, which was scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, went by and I was ready to face my job again. I didn’t feel so anxious this time around. New job jitters, I thought. When I went back into work I looked for my name in the computer database and found that it wasn’t there. Then I went to the kitchen to see what my duties for the day were, but my name was not written on the dry-erase board. I brought this to my boss’ attention and she informed me that I was fired. She assumed that when she sent me home on Monday that I would read between the lines and surmise that my employment was automatically terminated. Apparently I was expected to be psychic.
People who suffer from chronic, unmanageable anxiety are less likely to be employed and struggle to cope with workplace stress more than the general population. Even at the best of economic times the unemployment rate of the mentally ill is between 70-90%. Scientific studies have shown that employment is crucial to recovering from mental illness and maintaining sound mental health. Even among people who do not suffer from chronic mental health, unemployment can increase the likelihood of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and self-destructive behaviours like substance abuse.
Though some workplaces may be willing to make accomodations for employees who are unable to cope with workplace stress, mentally ill people are more often than not unwilling to disclose their illness to management for fear that they will be judged and may be denied opportunities for advancement.
Another barrier to employment for the mentally ill are the gaps in work history that exist on their resumes. They may choose not to divulge that their mental illness is the reason for their uneven employment record under threat of discrimination, especially since the threat is real. Employers may feel that the potential loss of productivity due to the manifestation of a mental illness is a likely occurrence and they do not want to risk it.
Yet another challenge is that we live in a society that values confidence and top notch social skills. People who suffer from mental illness, especially anxiety, find job interviews exceedingly difficult and their discomfort is usually obvious.
Many mentally ill people are highly intelligent and gifted in many areas. They have potential and a lot to offer but are seldom given opportunities because superficial qualities that have nothing to do with talent and intellect are given special consideration.
What human resources managers must keep in mind is that mental illness becomes less of a liability once a patient has the opportunity to earn a better living, become a highly valued contributor to a group enterprise and receive recognition for their successes. These expectations are not unreasonable: don’t all of us want these things? Who among us would not be detrimentally affected by poverty and social exclusion?
Mentally ill employees working in an environment in which a human resources manager is not present are less likely to disclosed their illness. They are typically unaware of their supervisors’ attitude toward people who suffer from mental illness and may fear that their disclosure may provide management with an incentive or excuse to dismiss them. They may also be considered unfit for leadership roles since managing stress is a crucial ability to possess when it comes to managing resources, both material and human, in a busy environment.
Human resources managers have been educated on the laws relating to disabled people in the workplace in terms of their rights and what accommodations may be deemed necessary by law.
Such knowledge is far less common among other figures in management. Perhaps every employee in a leadership role should undergo a workshop wherein they would be educated about the needs of workers with both visible and invisible disabilities. It would certainly be necessary when it comes to the mentally ill because most people are compassionate to someone who presents with a physical disadvantage while they may be inclined to fear and/or condemn people who sometimes struggle to cope with the symptoms of an episode of mental illness. Education on the true nature of mental illness could dispel the stigma and stereotypes perpetuated by prejudicial attitudes and misleading media portrayals.
An example of a way to accomodate an employee who experiences episodes of mental illness is to provide a period of respite during a stressful shift in a quiet, sparsely populated or empty room. This would be ideal for recovering from panic attacks and other mental health challenges that emerge that lead to overwhelming and unmanageable psychological stress.
Another way in which a mentally ill person could avoid triggering their illness in the workplace to some degree is careful career planning. Pressure to avoid short-term deadlines can lead to stress. For instance, it would be more ideal to complete tasks within the hour or by the end of the day with time to inspect their work. They would also find it easier to manage work that does not require a great deal of multi-tasking and instead enables them to focus on one task at a time to eliminate the risk of becoming discombobulated and confused by the difficulty of struggling with numerous responsibilities with little to no time to prioritize.
Unfortunately many workplaces consider multitasking to be a highly desirable skill since hiring one employee to do the work of three people is comparably inexpensive when considering how much more it would cost to hire three workers. Hence, the workplace has become even less ideal for people who suffer from mental illness.
What careers would suit the mentally ill? A position in which they can be productive at a moderate pace with minimum supervision would suit them best.
Pressure and a negative supervisory presence will only stimulate anxiety. Customer service and other call centre work would not be ideal since they offer positions that impose deadlines that must be met within the minute. Positions that involve presentations and performance would also likely lead to anxiety-based reactions. Sales would not suit the mentally ill.
Working behind the scenes and being left to their own devices is a scenario in which a mentally ill employee can flourish.
It is essential that management become educated on the needs of people who struggle with psychological difficulties to ensure their participation in the workforce. Under this circumstance, employment can become more accessible and require less adjustment.