Discussion Mental Health and the Workplace – Shifting the Culture

by Bethan Lance _______17th January 2019

Tomorrows’ Company’s ‘Technology, Productivity and Mental Health’ roundtable held back in November highlighted the need for mental health to be at the top of business’ agenda. Stronger focus, exploration and innovation is required by business to move with the progress society is making on openly addressing mental health issues.

One of the takeaway questions from the roundtable was – how do we address workplaces being welcoming and open to people with mental health issues?

Currently this is a very important question to me. I have Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), a long-term condition, that means I feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than one specific event. This affects many aspects of my life. It is not a temporary condition that has resulted from stressful episodes (although those certainly don’t help it!); being anxious is very much a part of my personality and is here to stay! Over the years I have learnt how to handle and live with it and actually believe, when managed properly, it makes me a very strong worker. When taking exams for example, there is always a significant difference between what I consider ‘prepared’ and what my peers consider ‘prepared’. In the workplace my anxiety typically manifests through placing high expectations on myself and being very concerned about pleasing others. I like to think consequently this makes me very hardworking, loyal and conscientious.

Having graduated with an Economics degree this summer and now working towards an MA in Globalisation, Business and Development, it is at the forefront of my mind that this will be my last year in full-time education and, come September 2019, I shall have to find my way in the big wide world of work! For any student this is a scary prospect, but my recent experience of a graduate scheme assessment centre has strongly demonstrated to me the added difficulties having an anxiety disorder will bring to this process.

I was chuffed to have made it through the first three rounds of a graduate scheme in an area I am really excited about, but was always doubtful about my prospects at an assessment centre. As I said, I am good at managing my anxiety, but it will always be difficult in unfamiliar and uncertain situations of short-term extreme pressure. I think most people would struggle to manage anxiety in such situations, so for someone with GAD the outlook is intimidating.

We were told to arrive at the assessment centre for 8:00am, where I was immediately turned from a person into a number; I was assigned a candidate number for the day. Next was a very quick introduction talk and by 8:15 we were all in our first exercise. The assessment centre was spread over half a day, and by lunchtime I’d been shuttled in and out of four exercise rooms with a short break in between each one. One key symptom of my GAD is that when my anxiety levels raise significantly my mind blanks, and I have to focus all of my energy on staying calm. So you can imagine how well I performed in a time-pressured analysis exercise that required a significant amount of reading followed by a written report…!

I left the assessment centre day feeling extremely frustrated. The whole experience had been highly robotic and impersonal. _______

The attempts made to replicate situations found in the workplace through exercises felt false; the situations we were placed in weren’t comparable to the situations one is likely to find themselves in once in employment. Of course they are testing certain competencies under pressure, but I strongly believe that the type of pressure created at such assessment centre day is a very different kind of pressure from that which we experience in education and employment. I was annoyed that no one had asked my name or given me the opportunity to express my passion for what I’m interested in and why I’d like to work for the particular organisation. I felt such a simple task would have made the atmosphere of the day far more welcoming.

In the information pack sent to us before the assessment centre day the organisation strongly highlighted their focus on ‘fair and open recruitment’ and their commitment to equal opportunities.

“Assessors won’t know which university you’ve attended, your socio-economic or ethnic background, gender, disability, appearance, age, sexual orientation, accent, political views, religion, personal beliefs or previous employment, play no part in our final decision”.

Perhaps the above statement provides an explanation as to the robotic and impersonal nature of the day. However, I question to what extent they have focused so strongly on ensuring the day provides equal opportunity to certain groups of people, that they’ve neglected how unattainable they have now made it to those with mental health issues. I admire their efforts for ‘fair and open recruitment’ and greater inclusivity but this should be greater inclusivity for all, and it appears mental health is yet to find its place on that agenda.