On Twitter yesterday, Mind brought up the topic of whether you should disclose mental health problems to your employer at work. There were some fantastic arguments on both sides, including a brilliant post from one of my favourite bloggers, purplepersuasion/BipolarBlogger on being open with your employers for both your benefit and theirs.
I wish I could be so positive. In fact, although I have since accepted that I am disabled and that my illness plays a large part in most of my life decisions, I am still very reluctant to share anything about my condition to potential employers. Why? Because opening up about my illness has only brought me trouble in my working life – and I was treated so badly in my last job, that the idea of even applying for a job until just recently left me crying and quaking in utter terror.
My job history isn’t amazing – though I’ve found that’s common for people with BPD and other mental illnesses – but I’ve always enjoyed being employed and earning a wage. I’ve never stepped outside of retail, which is apparently one of the worst jobs for someone with mental health problems due to the constant pressure and dealing with people all the time. The longest time I was in a job was two and a half years, with around six months off for severe depression in the middle – that was the time when I finally realised that my depression was a big problem. I didn’t mean to be dishonest, I actually believed that my depression and anxiety were under control, until I started struggling and went to my GP for medication.
At first, I thought my employers were supportive. My manager seemed like she wanted the best for me, and I spoke a lot to the assistant manager because we were friends already and he was the one I generally spoke to when things were bad. As time went on though, I felt like I was being pressured back into work, eventually returning after four months. I was writing a lot at the time about my experiences via a public blog, and whenever I posted something about my struggles, my manager would be annoyed about it.
I took an overdose in November 2012. Before that, I’d been self-harming due to problems in my relationship, something I had told the assistant manager about in confidence, just because I trusted him more than my manager – she had a habit of gossiping about us all. I wrote about what I did, and once again I was confronted about it in a seemingly nice way, but knowing my manager was pissed off with me. My relationship ended and life went on.
Until my mom died. And once again, I felt pressured to come back into work. I remember very clearly calling up work from the hospital after I had seen my mom’s body to tell them I wouldn’t be in. My manager asked me when I would be back, and I had to let her know because she needed to get the rotas done.
I struggled with work when I came back, found myself feeling alienated from my colleagues (aside from the assistant manager, who seemed to act like the middle man between me and the manager) and just felt like I could not cope with the day-to-day bollocks that came with working in a shop. Whenever someone came in to demand a refund or complain about something they rented, I wanted to gouge their eyes out – I was angry, heartbroken, mixed-up and isolated all at the same time. I felt like I got very little support from the people I worked for and with.
In the end, I took off sick again. And it seemed my manager’s patience with me had run out. She didn’t hide how fed up she was with me, and having to deal with me. I gave in sick notes, I had spoken with the assistant manager about my dealings with the GP, counsellors, everything. I was once again pressured into coming back, despite talking through it all with my Other Half and The Ex (who was a very good friend to me at the time) so when I got into work, I told my manager that I still wasn’t ready to come back.
She was furious. Her argument was that I apparently looked ‘fine’ on my Facebook pictures, along with bringing up the tragic death of her baby godson to tell me that my grief was not a suitable enough reason to stay off work. I was being blamed for being ill, and I knew I was never going to stand a chance in that place.
In a bizarre turn of events, while I was off sick, the company went into administration for the second time in my employment there. The week I was due to go back, I applied for another job and was accepted immediately – I was going to get more hours and it was only one bus ride into town instead of two buses across town. My manager was vicious when I told her that I wouldn’t be coming back just to shut the store down – it may seem shitty, but I had to pay bills by myself in a three bedroom house with no heating, barely any food and needing to support myself and my pets. I didn’t want my Other Half taking responsibility as we’d only been together four months at this point and we’d already been through so much already. I was jumping the sinking ship for my sake.
I later found out that my old manager had told my new manager that he would regret hiring me, that I was a mess and I would be nothing but trouble.
I was there for five weeks. I got through the Xbox One and PS4 launches, I thought I was getting along with all the staff, I did what I was told, I wanted to make a difference even in such a meaningless job. But the manager… he had it in for me. Big time.
It all started when I skipped out on working the midnight launch for the Xbox One because I had not long attempted suicide and I needed to take the time out. I lied and he saw through it. Not long before that, he’d made a move on me when I was drunk and painted me out to be creepy to the other staff members. He asked to meet up with me and be honest with him about what’s wrong with me – so we met up and I told him about my history with mental illness, and he made it clear that he wanted to sleep with me.
Several red flags would’ve gone off in my head if I had been well;
- He wanted to discuss my health matters outside of work, in a pub – because he knew I lowered my limits when I was drunk.
- My old manager had told him a lot of stuff about me, including that I had broken up my assistant manager’s marriage – long story, but not as it seems.
- He knew I was weak. He got into my head.
That was the beginning of the hell I went through. I said no to him, but he continued to mess with my head in other ways. He spoke about me behind my back, mocked my mental health problems, made me do horrible tasks such as standing outside in the freezing cold for six hours with a sign, accused me of stealing and turned people against me, and to top it off, after I finally came clean to another staff member about what happened, he intimidated me to the point where I ended up in hospital with gastroenteritis. On the funny side, the paramedic who took me in was a customer of whom I’d sold a PS4 the previous week!
It was at the point where he lied about one of my colleagues apparently threatening to sue me for accusing her of being a thief when I realised this man was going to go to some extreme lengths to break me down. I quit that day and never looked back.
Both of these examples are pretty extreme. I didn’t tell either employer straight away about my mental health issues – but at that point, I was still unclear of just how ill I was. My BPD diagnosis came nine months after I had last worked, after all.
So, surely after all this agony in employment, I would be against informing my employer of my mental health issues? The answer to that is no. I believe you have a responsibility to yourself and your employer to be the best you can be, and if you lie about your health, you can’t be that. After everything that happened in my last jobs, I eventually volunteered – something I am passionate about and that I enjoy – and the confidence I have gained from that has pushed the fear of working aside, allowing me to apply for a paid job outside of retail.
Please, tell your employers. Work with them and the people around you to facilitate a plan for you when you’re ill, be honest, and be the best you can be when you can be it. If and when I get an interview for my next job, I will tell them everything they need to know about my illness and what it means for them if they employ me. Being disabled and mentally ill doesn’t make me any less of a person – and it does not give anyone the right to treat you badly.