Deep Fried Mars Bars (5): On The Experience of Discrimination In The Workplace Because of Mental Health Illness and Disability.

This post discusses direct discrimination and trauma: and whilst I share this because I want other people who deal with discrimination to know that its not normal, not okay, and that they are not alone – self care matters more than clicks for me. 

 

I’d been jobless for 3 months when I began working at my last place of employment. It was a casual contract at first, and was never meant as a career move; most of the staff, except for a small handful in the office, were there on the same basis – it was work, it was January, and it paid cash weekly.  That was in 2009/2010, right before the Equalities Act came into place.

Eventually, I was taken on full time – finding other jobs had been difficult, and by then there were a core group of us who pretty much looked out for each other, and largely got on. When the work you do is repetitive, and your role is to deal with angry people on the phone, getting on with your co-workers makes even the most unpleasant day in the job more bearable. And it had counted for a lot, a little later on, that my then manager had gone out of her way to help me, when caring for my late sister became so difficult in the months before she died, so that I could keep the job. I was a single parent with teenage children and I couldn’t afford to be out of work.

Near the start of 2015, something happened outside of work which had a direct impact on my mental health. Whilst I did not know that I was, in fact, dealing with the onset of PTSD, I had dealt with depression most of my life and to start with I thought I just needed to more actively manage that side of things. But over the course of that year, increasingly there were symptoms with my mental health which I had not dealt with before,  although I wasn’t truly conscious enough of them to articulate what was happening to me.

Nevertheless I advised my employer that there was an issue outside of work which was impacting my mental health, and that I had spoken to my doctor about being referred for counselling.  The waiting list for that (because I cannot afford to go privately), was quite a long one. But as the situation which had triggered my PTSD progressed, it became harder and harder to get through even the most uneventful day.

My physical health (which for a while hadn’t been right) was also getting worse. I was struggling with constant migraines, eczema (which had become an issue for the first time a couple of years previously) all over my face and scalp, and a recurrent bladder infection which persisted for months. It wasn’t exactly great but my doctor said I just needed to get my mental health under control.  I wasn’t convinced that my physical health issues would be resolved by my simply ‘calming down’.

By May 2016, I barely knew which way up I was standing. Having told my employer – at every monthly performance review – that I was struggling, I was at a loss as to how to keep coping with work. At that point I was effectively talking to myself: my team leader noted it (and did whatever she could God love her), but otherwise it didn’t flag anything up further up the chain, because nobody who was supposed to, was looking; and even if they had, there were no policies or procedures in place that could have been utilised. 

There were days I had to keep checking the calendar, to make sure it wasn’t suddenly the 1970’s again or something. Perhaps I could get another job, I thought.

All of that went out of the window over the course of 3 days in May 2016, when I attended an anti-fascist demonstration (in my own time). Afterward I was doxxed online, and several hundred right wing extremists made rape and death threats. The extent of the doxxing became apparent when I got a call to go and see the HR department at work on the Tuesday afternoon.

I remember knocking on their door, I remember being asked to come in. I remember being told that the company had received telephone calls from people who had told them that unless I was sacked then ‘certain violent threats’  had been made. (The police confirmed to me the nature of the threats). I was advised that the recordings of the calls (all incoming calls to the company were recorded) had been sent to the police. I was then advised that I was to be investigated for bringing the company into disrepute.

There isn’t much about most of the rest of the next few days I remember. The police told me the threats were credible. The investigation of me by my employer happened. (They decided I hadn’t brought the company into disrepute).

A couple of weeks or so later I made a mistake at work which cost a couple of hundred pounds.

Most of those weeks are a blank in my memory. Every time the phone rang (and my job was customer service via the telephone, in the main) I was triggered into what I now realise were flashbacks, and that I had been suffering with them for some time by then. Especially the telephone line that those calls had been made on, because whilst I had not actually taken the calls directly, I took the telephone line which the calls came through on. And the online threats had involved hundreds of people.

After a few weeks, I begged to be taken off that one telephone line. But I was told that if it were really a problem I would have asked sooner, and anyway it ‘shouldn’t be a problem for me’ because I had never taken the calls. Oh, and by the way you’ve made the mistake and we going to have to discipline you.

I fell apart. I crawled to my GP on my day off, and unspooled in her office. She signed me off work for 3 weeks and told me to get out of my employers clutches as soon as was humanly possible. I was given more drugs (yay!) and a referral to the local mental health crisis care team. A week later I had a telephone appointment with them, and they and they referred me to the team who deal with complex mental health care needs. I was formally diagnosed with PTSD a few weeks later.

I  was feeling a little stronger, when I went back to work: I needed to get my employer to understand that I would go through with the disciplinary (if they insisted on having it, given that they had received my doctors note, which used words like ‘depression’, ‘anxiety’, ‘stress’ and ‘insomnia’), but I needed time for the meds to kick in, time for the diagnosis process to complete, and for me to be taken off the phone line, so that I could cope a bit better.

They insisted on the disciplinary procedure continuing. They were provided with the information about why the last 18 months (at least, by then) had been difficult*. They had the sick note from my doctor advising them of (some) of the symptoms I as dealing with: I was, nevertheless, told that unless I could provide proof of my PTSD (which was formally diagnosed a couple of weeks later), the assumption was that I was not being truthful about my mental health. Again they reminded I never personally took the calls. But they took me off that phone line, and agreed to wait 2 months before beginning the disciplinary process.

[*This was extremely personal information, which they not only failed to record and take into consideration – they also tried to persuade me that I never advised them of it, in order to cover up the fact that they had not recorded it or taken it into consideration. They made my manager sit there and tell me I had never said it. There’s a word for that: its called gaslighting].

I was isolated from my colleagues. Not in a physical sense, but in every other sense. I was under suspicion – and I was now very angry about it. The slightest thing would result in me becoming snappy, and for a very long time, I felt afterward like the kindest thing I could do for my colleagues was never come back to work. Shame is horrid and the idea that I was making their lives harder filled me with it.

The disciplinary happened: somehow I was able to make them see, without using the words ‘constructive dismissal’, that it would better if I wasn’t sacked. If this seems like a very few words to describe what was a hugely traumatic process, you’d be right. I had to explain how trauma works to them, effectively putting my own on show, and describe what a flashback was like. I needn’t have worried about that bit though, because I suffered a flashback during the meeting, which had to be held in two stages. They insisted it was my responsibility to provide all the resources, education and information that they would require (if I was telling the truth).

I remember listening back to the recording of the first meeting later (some days later): I could hear myself, straining to explain that I was trying to highlight the institutional nature of the problem – almost apologising for the inconvenience I was probably supposed to believe I was causing. And I heard a reaction I hadn’t registered properly in that room: It was as if the words ‘it’s institutional, I want to resolve this amicably’ were translated into ‘you’re all terrible people’ in their ears. Expressions of personal offense were made to me, as if I my disability (and their failure to manage or support me because ‘proof’) was an inconvenience for which I were personally responsible.

Having succeeded in demonstrating to my employer that I had a leg to stand on legally, I hoped (for reasons more to do with utter exhaustion then naivety) that my employer would see the sense in putting into place to the type of measures they are supposed to, in terms of mental health disability and the Equalities Act. I mean, they had wheelchair accessible toilets, so its not as if they were unaware of their own obligations.

It became apparent very quickly that I might have saved my job, but my employer had made themselves only as acquainted with the Equalities Act as they needed to, in order to pour as much oil as possible on what were some very troubling waters. (My HR Manager, at the second stage of the meeting, had proudly produced a good number of information leaflets from a certain well known mental health charity in a bid – I assume – to avoid my doing anything expensively legal).

But I was still expected to provide ‘proof’ my mental health disability (since being signed off, and having flashbacks at work, was otherwise assumed to be some enormous ploy on my part not to have to work); they never once were able to comprehend that this was the foundational discrimination from which all else flowed. Not even when they put that to me as a reasonable request, on the grounds that ‘other employees had lied about having mental health issues in the past’ (or more likely couldn’t meet the employers unreasonable standard of ‘proof’) did they seem to realise just how egregiously they were still actively discriminating against me.

And I was ostracised still further from my colleagues.

Whilst my mental health wasn’t getting any better, my physical problems also got worse. Getting to work on time, and then completing a full day, got harder; the physical pain increased and the fatigue was unbearable. I would climb out of the shower before heading to work, and then have to lay down to let the fatigue induced nausea pass. The manager did their best, I know – but it came down to the same thing, every time: if I was struggling to meet the hours, well then maybe.. and if I wasn’t performing up to speed then maybe…  The points racked up on my Bradford Score; the ‘maybe’ [we might have to let you go] was left constantly hanging in the air. I would stare at every ‘position vacant’ ad I could dig up, applying for as many as was possible.  (At some point before I left I was told that I shouldn’t let my growing Bradford score cause me stress, that they weren’t planning to use it against me… for now… but provided I ‘proved’ I was telling the truth of course…) My monthly wage (I was paid hourly) got to barely covering the rent.

By May of this year, I could no more complete a full day of work than I could recite a Greek play. Nearly daily, multiple, flashbacks, and constant pain and exhaustion resulted in my being signed off for 3 months. 2 weeks later I was hospitalised with a serious cardiac crisis –  which at least had the happy side effect of making it clear that my physical symptoms were because my immune system was screwed.

I resigned from work on health grounds after I got out of hospital. At least now I can put it behind me, I thought. And for a few blissful weeks, I didn’t think about it at all. The number of intrusive thoughts and flashbacks began to subside a little. Being under orders to do absolutely nothing created space, out of which came the unexpected pleasure of discovering that I could crochet like a demon. (I’m cack handed Lil with a pair of knitting needles).

But I couldn’t escape it forever. Seeing social media posts from former colleagues a couple of months later, (speaking of my now need of a wheelchair to go anywhere as further ‘evidence’ of my need for attention), slapped me hard in the face and reminded me that leaving my employer did not mean that the culture of discrimination had left with me: that had never, ever been my fault. (I’ve kept the screenshots of that of course. I’m not publishing them because its the culture that needs to change, and personal attacks help nobody).

I even have a letter from my employer, from during the constructive dismissal process, in which the HR Manager implicitly states that they are not in compliance with the 2010 Equalities Act (y’know, the law), by explicitly stating that they will be seeking to put those policies into place. I have debated whether to include a picture of that in this blog post – but this isn’t about revenge.

I have not named the company (though not as a favour of any kind to them), because the point of this post is primarily to be able to say to other people – if any of this is happening to you, it is not okay; it is not normal or acceptable to be treated like that; your employer really does have an obligation under law to make reasonable adjustments to your disability. There are people you can contact about that too, if you need legal advise (and if you feel able).

Discriminatory employment practices also leads to people internalising a culture where it becomes the norm to make pejorative, derogatory assumptions about disabled people , and no part of that is okay either.

All I ever wanted was for my employer to do the right thing: I told them my house was on fire. They demanded I provide proof that I was burning.

I want to put this all behind me. But I don’t know if my old employer will ever put the procedures for employees with mental health disabilities into place – for all disabilities into place (They still hadn’t when I left. They still hadn’t, and had no intention to, the last I heard).

Having, or developing, mental health disabilities and illness’ IS NOT A CRIME; putting an employee under suspicion of lying from the moment that they say they have a mental health problem is basic discrimination. Refusing to provide support because the employee hasn’t met a wholly unreasonable standard of ‘proving’ they are telling the truth is discrimination. Treating employees with mental health issues like an easy target for dismissal so that you can massage your KPI‘s when touting for other  business, is discrimination. An employer who does that, and keeps doing that, and assumes they can get away with it – is an employer whose practices are discriminatory and abusive.

And it has to stop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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