Monday, October 10, 2011

Accommodating Mental Illness in the Workplace - A Little Goes a Long Way

Basic Office - No Touchy My Chair
Hello Friends:

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


Kat said...

Great post! My biggest trigger at work was the assistant principal I worked under. She was so terrible that she retraumatized me. We've discovered that she is one of the reasons my OCD/PTSD increased so dramatically during those seven years. I wish I could have put in a request to exchange her for a different boss. LOL

Elizabeth said...

Great post!

I have always been too afraid to speak up about any of my issues in the workplace. I try to do the best I can "under cover" and "behind the scenes" :-)

For instance, I hurry out to the reference desk first thing in the morning before anyone is really at work and I disinfect the whole thing on my morning to work out there. I have tried to do that as I begin to work out there but it is stressful to try to do my cleaning inconspicuously once the students and other staff arrive. Luckily I only have to go thru that once a week.

I agree with you about education being the key. I hear so many mis-informed comments about OCD. People bragging about how they're "OCD" if they like things organized or people whispering about someone being "OCD" if they use hand sanitizer. Ugh. I often wonder what my co-workers would say if I told them how OCD I am! Like for real...CLINICALLY!

I have quit jobs in the past because people there have raised my anxiety to off the chart levels and I couldn't cope.

Anyway, great post,

The Blue Morpho said...

I only told one employer, of the many I've had, about my MIs. I happened to be in a place that I knew was generally open-minded, and yet I still had some problems. I am not certain if I will claim my illness at the next job or not. I'd like to think that I had enough of a handle that I could continue to fake being normal, but that facade bit me in the butt last time when the bad depression hit. It would be nice to be able to always own it, without fear of prejudice or stigma. Not there yet.

The Girl said...

I've faked being normal at every job I've ever had. It was a HUGE stress for me. I still don't have the courage to say anything about my MI and I'm not sure I will at the next job I have either, as I fear it would cause problems like you've mentioned. People need more education so they understand how disabling it really can be. It would be so nice if people at least sort of understood....

jennifersign said...

Great post. It can be really hard to explain your issues to ease the stress around the Workplace Environment.

natural remedies for anxiety said...

most people should be understanding about people having anxiety. its really rude for anybody to not even let people speak about how they really feel. nobody wanted to suffer anxiety.

Melanie said...

Great post!! I respect and admire your courage in asking for help, especially with having GAD. That must've been very hard for you. I have a question -- when you made these requests with your employer, did you have to show them any kind of documentation from your doctor? I'm considering talking to my boss but was wondering if it'd help to get a note from my psychiatrist explaining my disorders.

The Blue Morpho said...

Hello Melanie: Thanks for reading and commenting. I'm not sure what to say, since everyone's situation is unique. "Coming out" as a sufferer of MI in the workplace is such a personal decision, and based on so many factors specific to each person that I of course, can't know anything about. In my case, at least, I didn't have any documentation with me because I knew my boss well, and knew I wouldn't have to "prove" anything to him. The company was very small, so I spoke to him directly, not HR. Some places will have a company policy that you can look up that will tell you what to do if you want to seek some accommodation. As I mention in the post, the Job Accommodation Network has a lot of information on this issue. Check there for ideas and strategies for approaching your boss. I don't even know if your place of work can legally ask for a "note from your doctor" without breaking your privacy - for example. I'm just an MI sufferer like you, and not a lawyer or psychologist or anything like that. It might be a good idea, come to think of it, to also talk with your psychologist about your desire to request accommodation at work. Don't know of that was helpful - I wish you the best.

Melanie Bryan said...

Thank you, I greatly appreciate your feedback. <3

Janna said...

Mental illness should be dealt with immediately to not make it worse. Some doctors recommend psychotherapy while some prescribe antidepressants. However, some antidepressants may cause harmful side effects. An example is birth defects caused by Zoloft. Ask medical advice for more information on this.

SynthGirl said...

Thank you, this was quite helpful, as it gave me hope for the future of the working (wo)man.

If I were your workmate, I would have decorated your chair with beads, fabric, or paint -- maybe even in colors and designs that only you would love -- and make it YOURS. But perhaps that would make the chair unfriendly to you? I'm sorry, if it would...

I work at home now, but when I was a teenager having flashbacks from severe childhood abuse, I had a hard time working in public. I actually walked out on a job because they wouldn't let me go home when there was a gun show triggering traumatic memories. I admire your strength for making it through all that you have, and staying both sane and employed...!

That being said, I think simple respect is what is needed in all work (and home) environments! And perhaps the greatest show of respect is trusting people to know themselves, their own needs, and their own boundaries. If you say you need it, I should respect that.

-- SynthGirl

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