How my mental health affected my work
I watched the clock in the corner of the computer screen ticking over, flitting between tasks as I awaited my summons. When the time came, I walked down the corridor with my manager, through to the other side of the building and into a small, plain room with a table and chairs. She held in her hand a scrap of paper – not a piece, not an official document or letter – but a scrap. Her voice shook as she delivered the news.
“I’ve made my decision, and my decision is to terminate your contract. You will serve two months notice at full pay…”
The tears came
I half listened to the rest of what she said, my chest tight with nerves. Before I could stop myself, the tears came. I wasn’t just upset, I was embarrassed, ashamed, confused and frustrated. Months of back and forth, being dragged through meetings where I tried to demonstrate that although I was ill, I was more than competent and still getting the job done. Months of effort, only to be told that it was over.
By this point, I’d been employed for just under a year. This process had taken up at least half of that, and I still wasn’t better. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that I couldn’t just switch myself back on, that I was trying my absolute hardest to function without any professional support or guidance; just my medicine, my GP and me.
Presence over performance
As anyone reading may have guessed, I’m describing the first time (yes, there’s more than one) I lost my job because of my mental health, or lack thereof. My attendance had been poor, and I was struggling to function on some days. I was still able to do my job to a high standard, and my manager was keen to express that there were no performance issues. Instead I fell foul of the ever-present ‘probationary period’, written into most employment contracts as a period of time for employers to assess your suitability for the role. Despite my employers clearly being satisfied with my suitability, my absence levels were unacceptable and ultimately led to my dismissal.
My condition is long term. Chronic. Recurrent. A particularly long, drawn out episode with sporadic intervention from health services had left me drained, and slipping towards the bottom of the chasm. The longevity of this episode, and the chronic nature of my condition meant that it was classed as a disability, and confirmed as such by Occupational Health on the various occasions I visited them.
It didn’t feel right – my employers knew exactly what was wrong with me, and that legally, it perhaps wasn’t the best course of action to dismiss an employee with a legitimate disability. This is where the confusing cloak of probationary periods comes in – these seem to give employers license to do whatever the fuck they want, and call it acceptable by grounding it in ‘unsatisfactory completion of probationary period’.
Appealing the decision
I was given the opportunity to appeal the decision, and appeal I did. I turned up to the appeal armed with advice from ACAS, Citizen’s Advice and the Equality Act 2010. I showed that between each extension to my probationary period I had been asked to demonstrate ‘an improvement’ in my absence, and how I had done exactly that. Without specific guidance or parameters set, I had managed to improve my attendance at work bit by bit every time I was asked. That was all they had asked of me, and I delivered.
I walked out of that room knowing I had lost before I got the official decision (which, laughably, was communicated to my colleagues before I knew). Despite appearances of being impartial, I knew which way the panel would lean. It had already happened, and I couldn’t see the organisation being willing to admit they had been wrong.
After my two months’ notice, I left. I left with a sad heart, knowing what had happened to me was wrong, but feeling such an intense guilt that it didn’t seem to matter. I blamed myself, deciding that I had ‘chosen’ to be ill, and could surely have saved myself if I had only tried.
Back on the horse
I left, and immediately got back on the job hunt. I didn’t give myself time to feel sad, because I didn’t think I deserved it. Panic was creeping in – I needed a job, needed to pay the bills. Doubt lurked around every corner of my mind, and I felt certain that my search was pointless. I convinced myself before I had even secured a job that exactly the same thing would happen to me, no matter where I went or what I did.
After about six weeks, I interviewed for and was offered a new job. I took it, because I couldn’t let myself do anything else. I thought that maybe, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe I’d feel better. Maybe, despite my mixed reactions to medicines and lengthy waiting lists for treatment, my brain would magically have healed itself. Maybe I just needed a new environment.
I was wrong.
The mask slipped
I wasn’t better, and the mask slipped a lot sooner this time around. I believed myself when I told myself it was my fault, I hadn’t tried hard enough and I’d chosen this for myself. Despite this, I couldn’t seem to stop ‘choosing’ it. I felt isolated at my new job, and deep down I think I knew I wasn’t ready. Before long, I was sitting in an office with my new manager, telling her every detail about my poor mental health, and weakly assuring her that I was sure it wouldn’t be a problem.
Fast forward another seven months, and I’m back at square one. A second meeting, a second air of awkward expectation. A second scenario in which I and my mental health come last, and the business comes first. A second less-than-satisfactory handling of a sensitive, difficult illness. This time, I sat in a small office and listened to someone telling me that actually, it was nothing to do with my illness and was in fact a performance issue. A performance issue that no one saw fit to performance manage – I was issued an extension to my probation, some weak terms on which I had to improve and that was it. Not a word until ‘We can’t continue with your employment’. Actually, you can. You just don’t want to.
I protested – did they not see that any performance issues were directly related to my absence? If performance was an issue, why didn’t they say sooner? Why wasn’t I given a chance to improve? I knew all the answers. My performance was suddenly an issue because legally, my sickness couldn’t be.
So here I am, again. This time, I’m not rushing into another job. Although I’m actually in a better place at the moment having completed some psychotherapy with more on the horizon, I am not rushing myself into another job just to pay the bills.
I have learnt some lessons, thankfully. In the past I have assigned an awful lot of worth to my employment. I have struggled with my own identity and my own self-worth. I have locked myself into ‘should be’ situations; my friends have these jobs, I should be doing something worthwhile, but look where I am. Look where I am, and what’s more, I don’t even have any personal attributes to make up for it. I have been trapped in a cycle where all I thought about was either being ill, or work. I didn’t feel fulfilled at work due to my own ridiculous expectations of myself, and I felt unfulfilled outside of work because I would never let myself do anything.
This time, I know there is more to me than what I do for a living. I know that all these ‘shoulds’ are just my way of bringing myself down, comparing myself to others and confirming that I am what I always thought – useless and unimportant. This time, I can see that I have interests and talents outside of work. I can see that I’ve planted some seeds, and this time, I’m going to let them grow whether they’re under the cloud of depression, the winds of anxiety or the sunshine of self-appreciation.