When EastEnders character Stacey Slater was diagnosed with bipolar disorder last year, the distressing scenes of her turbulent mood swings and compulsory hospitalisation attracted record ratings.
But while what was once termed manic depression is a rich new seam for both soap opera and documentary-makers, in the view of HR consultant Helen Waygood, the attitude of many employers towards mental health problems is still rooted in the 19th century.
“It’s taken painful personal revelations of mental ill health from people such as Alastair Campbell, Ruby Wax and Stephen Fry to put it on the media map, but for many employers, it’s still far easier to marginalise colleagues with mental illness than face up to how it can be managed.”
Waygood, an HR change management consultant who was diagnosed as bipolar 20 years ago, has had a long and successful career with organisations such as the Arts Council, Essex County Council, Central Government and the police force.
Although she has kept her condition private for most of her career, she confided in the company doctor at one US multinational after being shortlisted for the HR directorship. Several months into what turned out to be a long and successful appointment, her department received a belated letter from occupational health, advising that “on no account should Helen Waygood be employed”.
Now 60, Waygood is more open about her disorder – but usually only after each contract has ended successfully. For younger people starting out today, she believes candour is ill-advised.
“In the long run, disclosure would really lift barriers,” she suggests. “But until people feel they can talk about their condition without being stigmatised, they will continue to suffer in silence, and many HR professionals will refuse to admit this is a widespread problem.”
One in four of us will have a significant period of mental ill health at least once in our lifetime, but according to Ian McPherson, director of the government’s National Mental Health Development Unit, who has suffered from bouts of depression throughout his life, mental illness still tends to be viewed as unusual.
“Episodes of mental ill health are neither complex nor difficult to control, and in the majority of cases, have no bearing on our ability to work,” he says. “The majority of organisations are sensitive and fair when it comes to getting someone with a heart condition back to work, and I see no reason why this should be different if they’ve been off with severe depression.”
He adds: “I have met high court judges and captains of industry who struggle with depression, but I have also met unemployed people in the same position. Mental illness cuts right through society, and any attempt to label it simply doesn’t fit facts.”
It is thought that at least one in 100 people have bipolar disorder – a chemical imbalance in the brain that is treated, though not cured, by anti-depressants – but Waygood draws a clear distinction between this and more everyday ‘blues.’ “When I look at my CV, I’m struck by how much I have achieved in my career and how far I have come. Yet when I am laid low with my condition, I can’t even make a cup of tea, let alone go out of the house and tackle a major HR project,” he explains.
“That’s how debilitating it is for me, how chronic, and it’s a million miles away from craving a duvet day from time to time.”
Recent research by the disability campaigning group Radar suggests that people with mental rather than physical problems are significantly less likely than other disabled people to earn £80,000 or above or to be board directors.
It finds that while 75% of people who are able to keep their disability hidden at work choose to do so, those with mental health conditions are nearly four times as likely as other disabled people to keep quiet. Common fears are being stereotyped or limited career progression.
Yasmin Miller, a skills development manager at the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), who suffers from depression, says it is highly likely that all of us have worked with people with either sporadic or permanent mental health issues.
“I understand that non-disclosure makes it very hard for HR to provide a duty of care, but I also understand that when one brave person discloses and other people don’t, it tends to be that one individual who is isolated and even targeted,” she says.
Miller was a corporate tax manager at a large private consultancy when she suffered her first bout of severe depression.
“Although it had been building up for some time, all I really knew at that stage was that I was losing motivation and becoming very anxious about my work; checking and re-checking everything a hundred times. Colleagues reported my behaviour to HR and I was sent to see occupational health.
“When they diagnosed it as severe depression, I was as shocked as everybody else. I’d been brought up on horror stories about Prozac leaving you in a vegetative state and I was really frightened.”
Miller’s employer initially demanded to see her every week, but subsequently made no contact for 18 months. After three-and-a-half years of being signed off, the two sides finally parted company.
“When I applied to the LSC in 2007, I ticked the Disability Discrimination Act box and explained my situation more fully in an accompanying letter. I didn’t want to hide anything, but I simply hoped that my skills and experience would be self-evident from my CV and luckily, they were.”
After a consultation with doctors, Miller was put on daily medication, and aside from a brief episode of depression this year which ended when her drugs were tweaked, she has remained well.
“Because I felt able to be totally honest with both HR and line managers from the start, I was able to tell them when my depression hit, without being forced to go into long, involved explanations.
“My colleagues were sympathetic and my line manager gave me something less demanding to do for a while, but they all fully accepted that I needed to be at work, rather than at home.”
Although she is likely to be on anti-depressants for life, Miller does not see this as an issue. “Diabetics need insulin and people with high blood pressure need medication to reduce the pressure on their heart. My body simply needs a regular chemical top-up, and that’s not so unusual nowadays.”
Miller’s point about needing to work through her depression is taken up by McPherson. “In terms of our mental health, it’s best for practically all of us to do something positive rather than mope alone and, for most people, work is a salvation,” he says. “It’s important for HR to understand that what we get out of work – however much we grumble – is critical to our mental wellbeing.”
Ironically, says Waygood, struggling with mental health problems while holding down a demanding job can make people develop new skills. “It’s easy to swallow the stereotypes of schizophrenics being knife-wielding murderers or people with bipolar all being very arty, but given the wide spectrum of sufferers and symptoms, these fixed images are ludicrous,” she says.
“Although it’s highly unlikely that someone with bipolar will go berserk in the office, it is possible that they may be highly energetic, a great problem-solver and get through work far quicker than others. But most employers don’t see that as a problem.”