I have been off work sick this year more than any other year in my working life. I am currently up to six days this year. Four of those days were in a block a couple of weeks back. Usually sickness makes me feel guilty. I think of the work piling up. I know I shouldn’t but I can’t help it. This time though, I felt less shame than usual. I saw a doctor and was actually signed off sick ‘officially’ for the first time in about 10 years – the last time I was signed off sick with a medical note, I had had an accident that led to it, the day before my two weeks of annual leave and ended up never claiming it back! The other two days this year have involved me actually getting to work – confirmation of the ill-feeling that I had woken up with then driving me back home almost immediately.
There is a reason for me to share this and that is an article that I read in the Times over the weekend.
It is about the stigma that workers feel when producing sick notes that make reference to their mental health or rather, ill-health. Although my sickness related to physical complaints, I still felt a lot of pressure about having to take the time off. I can only imagine it might be more so for mental illness where there is sometimes an undertone of blame attached to those who are not well.
The survey of 1,000 workers by national charity the Shaw Trust found that 18.3 per cent would not reveal a condition even to their HR department and only 17.9 per cent would disclose details of an illness to a colleague.
To be honest, I am surprised it is as low as that. I would have thought it might have been a higher figure would be reluctant to share.
Of the respondents 34.5 per cent said the reason they would not reveal a mental health condition was because they felt worried or ashamed they would be treated differently. This figure rose to 43.3 per cent among 16 to 24-year-olds.
Again, maybe it’s just because I’m overly aware of stigma but a part of me is surprised the figures here aren’t higher.
The article about the stigma of revealing mental ill-health at work though is one that brought back some recollections of mine when I was in a previous job. A colleague of mine was visibly (to those she was more friendly with anyway) suffering from a massive amount of stress from all angles. I (among others) spoke to her about going to a doctor because it was very clearly not a ‘usual’ manifestation of work-related stress – which we all suffer from to a degree!
She went but was terrified that she would be signed off sick – as it happens she received a ‘formal’ diagnosis of depression and was initially signed off for two weeks. She begged the doctor to make reference to more vague ‘stress’ rather than putting ‘depression’ on the sick note because she was so concerned about future employment prospect, about how it would be received back at work and possibly more concerning, how the GSCC would respond to it.
He did. She perhaps received support from her managers in a way that might not have been entirely what she needed and ended up being signed off for 8 months after things didn’t get any better for her a couple of months later.
Going back to my own feelings of guilt about taking days off work, I wonder if it is related to that. Especially working in the ‘caring’ professions, you feel you should somehow be better equipped to deal with these things or that you should be immune in some ways, or that admitting an illness will make people approach you in a different way.
Perhaps some of the current climate of uncertainty in the financial markets and the knock-on effects on employment and job security will lead to additional stresses and a few more ‘brave faces’ that cover an enormous amount of pain and turmoil as more people face the stresses and tensions that can trigger mental ill-health as a result of a fluctuating job market. It is perhaps, something to be more aware of.
Ironic then, that The Shaw Trust who have a great website about combating stigma of mental ill-health at work and who conducted the survey referenced above – count – among their supporters and funders, Lehman Brothers. A salutary lesson for all.