Good mental health in the workplace
One on four people will experience some form of mental distress in their lifetimes. Workplace stress is cited as the number one cause. Lack of job security, continued cuts to public services and the shadow of Brexit is making the workplace increasingly insecure. Given that we spend more time than our European counterparts, having effective workplace policies and a culture free of stigma and shame so people can ask for adjustments, remains ever more important.
As a long time workplace rep and as someone who has benefitted from adjustments to manage mental health, I know the importance of effective of reasonable adjustments. When someone comes to a trade union rep it may be the first time they are disclosing about their mental health. From a BECTU member who has bipolar and who got support from the union: “once I turned to our union representative and was ready to discuss my condition, I found a lot of support from HR and even found out that we have welfare consultant in the building.”
As a workplace rep, I represented a male member who disclosed his long-term battle with an eating disorder and the impact that had on his work. Using the reasonable adjustments policy and looking at time-off for counselling, I was able to support the member to manage his workload and get the adjustments he needed. Often for union reps listening without judgement and ensuring management implement the reasonable adjustments policy will help the worker get the support they require.
It is not easy to ask for adjustments in the workplace. There is often sense of shame and stigma – the message projected by the mainstream media and a language which demonises mental health problem can often be internalised. Adjustments for people experiencing mental health problems could include: time off for counselling or other medical appointments (this may include compressed or flexible working if the appointment is a weekly appointment); adjusting the start and end to working hours (if sleeping is a problem or if overcrowding on public transport maybe difficult); adjustments to the sickness absence policy where time off is related to a disability. As stigma remains a huge barrier, it may be useful to consider suitable awareness raising exercises
For union organising around mental health there are some clear ways to bargain for equality. Continue to campaign in the workplace. Raise awareness about the issues facing people with mental health problems. Provide information on practical solutions and examples of good practice. Use this to increase people’s understanding of mental heal in the workplace. This will go some way in dispelling myths and fears about people with mental health problems. It may also help to encourage people with mental health problems to talk about their experiences and become active in the workplace. Blogging on the intranet about mental health can be an effective channel, I started this at my last workplace and three years later it became the norm.
Organise in the workplace. Organise workplace forums for members with mental health problems. Engage participants by talking to members formally and informally about their issues and ideas for resolving these and organise union led training on issues members have identified. You may also wish to engage with wider campaign groups to develop workplace campaigns.
Organising around mental health need not be arduous. It requires significant work to smash the stigma that still sadly reigns. Unions will always be stronger than an individual in doing this as they represent the collective voice. Using this voice to make it easier for people with mental health problems to work with dignity remains an important part of the bargaining agenda.