Youth Work

Too mental to work?

Part of my work with young people is to support them in understanding their work options and support available for future careers. But what to do when you’re told you’re too mental to work?

I’ve been fortunate enough to speak to several great adults recently who, for one reason or another, have had cause to take time away from their work setting due to ill health. The one commonality between them is that it was all related to poor mental health. For one, it was work-related stress, another a family bereavement, and the other following diagnosis of Social Anxiety Disorder, making their public-facing job near impossible. All three had returned to work but were still facing difficulties, the little ‘monkey’ (as it was described to me) popping up every so often reminding them of the condition.

To look at, you would think that these were some of the happiest people in the workplace, if not world. Each one, however, described how much of an act and how much effort it took to keep the monkey at bay. But why? Why fight the monkey? Some coping techniques suggest recognising that the monkey is there, dealing with it, and moving on. Others say to acknowledge, move on, return to the monkey later. But what was it that made these people feel they had to ‘act’ in a certain way? The answer was the same for all. ‘I’m not allowed to let it affect my work’.

Woah! Hold up! It’s not that easy.

The mental monkey will pop up when he likes, shove your mind in another direction, play with your personality, and make you feel worthless and isolated whenever he’s feeling restless or just up for a jolly good laugh, but a laugh it most certainly isn’t. It’s debilitating, so imagine my horror when one of these brave people told me how, following the death of a parent, their return to work was met with the following response…(I’ve paraphrased, but only slightly)…

‘You’re on medication for your mental thing, you’re dangerous to the people around you, a liability, and financially the company wonders whether you would like to take early retirement?’

I beg your pardon?!

I was taken aback. There was apparently no empathy or compassion for what is, first and foremost a human being, secondly a person who has been through a deep depression, and thirdly a person who has been medicated and deemed fit to work again. Supposedly, when the employee had the courage to question this response and explain their side, it was met with ‘oh, a bit like I take medication for my diabetes and sometimes feel a bit queezy’.

Well, yes, but no. Diabetes is completely different to a mental health condition, just like it is to cancer, MS, or any other disability. In the same way, mental health has many sub-categories such as GAD, SAD, Depression, Phobias, Bipolar, Anxiety, OCD, and more, and each of these tends to have their own category too (see the Mind website). Mental health is such a minefield, so please do not ever assume it is just like your diabetes, you can nibble a biscuit and feel better. Treatment is individualistic and must be tailored to the condition.

Admittedly, I do not know the employers side, but it seems from my conversations with each of the aforementioned people that it all stems from managers who either don’t know or don’t want to know how to support their workforce in this area.

Before there is an outcry of readers saying that managers have more things to worry about than getting inside people’s heads, let us remember that mental health referrals, as well as mental-health related suicides are increasing (NHS, etc). A manager who doesn’t class mental health awareness as important among staff is not only doing a disservice to employees, but to themselves as well. Staff turnover could be so high with a quarter of staff resigning in any one year due to mental health related issues.

As their stories were told to me, I wondered about the poor young people who I support. Here we are trying to provide access to services to enable them to get ahead in life and reduce the NEETs (11% of 16-24 year old’s in just the last quarter of 2016 were unemployed (Parliament)), but if workforce’s are not supporting staff appropriately, our young people are purely entering toxic work spaces and the staff absence due to mental health illness is set to increase. Just last year, the BBC reported that youth referrals for mental health had doubled in just five years (BBC).

There is so much support available to employers, and even though resources are stretched, having an understanding of how they can help their staff is really not that difficult and no excuse.

Whilst the mental monkey may decide to keep his act up, it is far easier to keep him in his tree when there is a team coaxing him back and keeping the individual rooted and grounded, rather than an individual fighting him whilst balancing precariously on the branch below.


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