|Basic Office - No Touchy My Chair|
The theme for World Mental Health Day this year is "Investing in Mental Health." With the wide variety of options for interpreting this theme, I finally chose to highlight the need for accommodations, particularly in the workplace. A little investment in time and energy, and much less investment in actual money, would improve the workplace conditions for many people who suffer with mental illnesses. In the process, conditions could be improved for everyone in the workplace.
In the US, certain mental illnesses fall under the Americans With Disabilities Act. This act requires that reasonable accommodations are made for otherwise qualified employees. You have a right to ask for changes to your workplace environment that will make you a happier and more productive employee. Of course, the kinds of accommodations needed by those with mental illness can differ radically from those with physical disability. We don't necessarily need ramps, elevators, or water fountains placed within easy reach. Instead, we might need a dedicated 'quiet' space to cool off, feel safe, or meditate, for example.
I first learned about possible accommodations by reading the materials at the Job Accommodation Network. Since the kind of accommodations we need can be seen as strange to others, you can't just go into your boss or HR department and say, "Make my life better." They might want to help, but have no idea how. You need to think of the concrete changes that you want, and consider how they can be implemented.
I started by making a list of everything in my work-day life that triggered my OCDs, GAD, phobias, and the rest. I tried to be as specific as possible. I thought of ways to mitigate these situations, then went and discussed some specific ideas with my boss. He thought some of my request were odd, but did his best to grant what I asked.
Some things were easy. I wanted a chair no one else would use. My OCD's make it difficult to use items that are 'public.' When we had big meetings, chairs would be pulled randomly out of peoples offices and dragged around the table. Even if you were not present, your chair might be appropriated. When I would come to my office and find my chair moved, I wouldn't be able to sit in it until it had been 'decontaminated' which can be a lengthy procedure. The same was true for other items, like my desktop computer. He agreed that I alone had access to my chair and computer, unless IT had to do maintenance.
Some were more difficult. The commute was very hard on me, over 1:15 minutes, and most of that on public transportation. I have a very difficult time dealing with the GAD and OCD issues that come up on public transport. Since I could see no way to change that situation, I asked to be able to work from home two days a week, so I could have a break from the stress. He couldn't do more than one day a week, given the schedule of meetings. But even that was a big help for me.
Mental illness, like any invisible illness, is very difficult for others to perceive and understand. The stigma remains - if you don't *look* like you need an accommodation, then you are taking up resources unfairly. When I asked to have a chair of my own, some of my co-workers acted poorly. Even though it was a small change, it was a noted change in office culture. A few times people used my chair for meetings even knowing they were not supposed to. I knew they were confused and some people interpreted any change as me trying to get attention or be 'special.' They have no idea how badly I wanted to be 'normal.' Some people were actually offended, wondering what was wrong with them that I wouldn't share my chair with them.
So the resources that have to be applied are mostly the time and energy to educate ourselves, and have our workplaces educate themselves, on what mental illness is, and what appropriate accommodation means. Money is not usually the issue. If we want people to be productive at work, we need to make the workplace as non-threatening as possible, and management needs to ensure and enforce accommodations and provisions so the requester does not feel like they are being outcast as other worker try to adjust. Everyone needs to be educated.
Offices that begin to make accommodations or provisions for those with mental illness often find that it improves working conditions for everyone. Morale as well as physical wellness go up in environments where people are treated as whole people, not just workers.
Your Hostess With Neuroses
Image credit/info: My workplace, CC 2.0, Flickr via Creative Commons