Fay Jackson, former deputy commissioner for the NSW Mental Health Commission and general manager of inclusion at Flourish Australia, speaks movingly about mental health at work.
As someone who lives with bipolar disorder, I sometimes experience psychosis.
For many people living with a mental health issue, working and staying at work is vital to them remaining healthy or recovering when something goes wrong. I know this because I experience it first hand.
Usually when you’re experiencing psychosis, your boss or a GP might suggest you take time off work, even though neither may fully understand the complexity of what’s happening to you; taking time off might not help at all. In fact, there is plenty of research (here’s one example) to show that when you are experiencing an episode of mental ill health it’s often better for your recovery to continue working.
The last time I experienced psychosis, I stayed at work. I didn’t ask for the advice of a GP because I already knew what to do, and so did my colleagues.
At Flourish Australia, where I am the general manager of inclusion, we have ‘personal situation plans’. These are for anyone, not just those with mental health issues, and outline the way forward when something – a personal situation – may affect an employee’s time at work.
The plan sets out what the person affected, the manager (the CEO in my case), and colleagues can do if someone’s mental health becomes vulnerable. My plan gives us a clear course of action should I become very anxious, hear voices or have other difficult experiences.
About two years ago I went through a very difficult time with my mental health and on the day that I needed support my CEO wasn’t in the office. I took my plan to one of my colleagues and told him that I was hearing voices, and needed his help to put the plan into motion. He did so without fluster; he was fantastic.
This meant I could stay at work. It meant that I could still contribute and feel valuable. And it meant that I recovered much faster than I would have otherwise – in two weeks. The previous two occasions I had reached the point of hearing voices and feeling paranoid it took me two years to recover. Two years is such a long time. Two weeks is such an amazing difference.
The reason I could stay at work is because we were prepared. Because we understand that sometimes life happens, and it can impact your time at work. But it doesn’t mean you need to stay home and it doesn’t mean that you can’t still be a valuable contributor to your workforce.
It is this culture of acceptance, understanding and inclusiveness that enabled and accelerated my recovery. But the benefits aren’t just for me.
The power of togetherness
Research shows time and time again that an inclusive workplace is a better workplace. The SunCorp Inclusion@Work index shows that a worker in an inclusive team is ten times more likely to be highly effective than a worker in a non-inclusive team. This isn’t just about doing the right thing for people, it’s doing the right thing for your business.
From my own experience, this is just the beginning. The diversity of thought that comes from people with mental health conditions is a boon for any organisation lucky enough to hire them.
There’s a saying that goes something like, ‘If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail’.
If your organisation only has access to a certain set of experiences, your approach to every problem becomes the same. Diversity strengthens a team because it brings in very different perspectives that often lead to better outcomes. The Inclusion@Work index also tells us that inclusive teams are nine times more likely to innovate – to me it seems clear why.
All the data adds up to a single conclusion, there is every reason to hire people with mental health conditions. So what’s stopping us?
A will, and a way
Employers say they are open, now we just need them to act. Research commissioned by the Australian government as a part of the Employ their Ability campaign revealed that 79 per cent of Australian employers say they are open to hiring people living with a disability, but only 58 per cent of them do.
The gap exists because employers see it as a step into the unknown. They don’t understand that they aren’t in it alone. JobAccess, Australia’s national hub for disability employment advice and information, has every tool you need to get started. All you need to do is act.
And if we do, our businesses will be better for it. Because it is our differences that make us strong. Our diverse opinions that lead to the best outcomes.
At my workplace, we often recall the old Japanese tradition of taking a ceramic vase that has been smashed and putting it back together with gold filling the cracks. It becomes more beautiful, more of a point of pride, and more valued because of its so-called imperfections.
In the job market, hirers are digging for gold. A person with a mental health condition could be just what they’re looking for.
Mental health affects nearly half of Australians each year. AHRI’s Ignition training course Mindfulness – Mental Health at Work gives participants stress management information and strategies to better manage wellness in the workplace.