Naomi Osaka’s decision to step back from her job for reasons of mental ill health has stirred up a lot of debate in the last week. And yes, it’s great that she is being open about her mental ill health being the reason for this decision.
But Naomi Osaka is not representative of most people who experience mental ill health during their working life. The main reason is that (financially) Naomi can afford to take enough time off to recover.
I don’t point this out to minimise her suffering. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It will make you feel equally shit whether you are wealthy or not. But the luxury of time off for an employee to recover fully from an episode of mental illness is not one many workplaces will or even can accommodate.
This week several experts have stated that it is illegal for employers to discriminate against employees living with a mental illness, that these employees have a right to time off and to have their work modified to accommodate that mental illness.
I have mixed feelings about this. I feel exasperated, bemused, and tired. Because these earnest, well intentioned experts have no idea how mental illness and work mix in the real world.
The first time I experienced mental illness (postnatal psychosis followed by rebound depression) I was hospitalised for close to four months. ‘Luckily’ for my employer I was on maternity leave, so absolutely no thought had to be put into managing my absence, because it had already been planned for.
After I recovered, I continued to work as a small animal vet for another 12 years before taking a break to have my book published. In those 12 years I experienced a severe Bipolar 1 episode on average every 2-3 years. When I say severe, I mean requiring hospitalisation for weeks or months on end followed by a gradual re-integration to life outside the hospital.
Here are the two deal breakers my illness presents to most work places:
Firstly, for me, the onset of episodes of illness is sudden – ie between 24-48 hours. There is no time to plan or find someone to fill in.
Secondly, when I’ve had to phone work to say I would not be in for my next shift, I’d have to follow that with ‘I have no idea how long I will need off’.
Again – luckily for my employers – in those 12 years I was a casual employee. This meant I was effectively fired each time I got sick.
The practice I worked for was not doing anything illegal, and from a practical and financial point of view they could not have indefinitely held a position open for me. Each time I eventually recovered, and because there is almost never a shortage of work for vets – new hours were found for me. But me being able to slot back into the same workplace each time was due to the nature of the industry, not due to any laws to protect my position and income.
I am privileged, and thankfully my husband could support our family without my wage when I got sick. But my survival and roof over my head have had absolutely nothing to do with my workplaces being able to accommodate my mental illness.
Just because it isn’t legal to fire people or make their life hell because they live with mental illness doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. I know plenty of people who live with this reality.
This injustice occurs because of a gargantuan power imbalance between an employee who lives with a mental illness and their employer. Whether employers are aware of it or not: They hold all the power. Here’s why:
Stigma still prevents many people from disclosing they live with a mental illness to their employer – especially when they are asymptomatic. Once that person becomes symptomatic, they are likely to struggle just to get through each day or hour. Symptoms such as poor concentration and memory, distorted thinking, irritability, a sense of hopelessness, panic attacks, and non-existent self-esteem, (to list just a few) make it incredibly difficult if not impossible to not only schedule a meeting with their boss or with HR, but then present at that meeting as a fully functioning human being.
And if they do, and their boss discriminates against them they often don’t have the mental resilience and the finances for a legal battle to bring their discriminating employer to justice.
These employees will often just go quietly –because that is all they have the energy for. Then their employer gets to shrug their shoulders and say: ‘Well it was the employee’s choice to leave!’
I am grateful to Naomi Osaka for cracking open the conversation about mental ill health at work a little wider. If it causes even one employer to stop and consider that the playing field between them and an employee who lives with mental illness isn’t even, it will be a good thing.
But there is still a long way to go before people who disclose their mental illness at work can expect to be treated the same as anyone who discloses a physical illness.