Practical tips

Overcoming discrimination to get a job

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Let’s face it, discrimination is a fact of life for many people with a mental health condition.  The media is always advertising how a person with “mental health problems” has comitted the latest murder, due to a failure in the mental health system.  Reporting that a person with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder has got a job, graduated with a first class degree or been promoted at work just isn’t news.

But discrimination is also the most illogical thing in the world.  Discrimination only exists as a result of this type of biased misinformation and ignorance.  Discrimination is based on fiction and not fact.  Armed with this knowledge and a marketing strategy, you can go a long way to dispel any myths and convince any reasonable employer to take you on.  Believe me, I’ve done it.

The first thing you have to do is to know your rights.  Under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), you are entitled to ask for reasonable adjustments to do your job.  These could include flexible working hours, working from home or working part-time on a job share.  Even if you are applying to a new employer, you are entitled to ask for these things up front.  This automatically widens the options open to you, as you can now apply for jobs that you thought were a closed book, such as full-time jobs on a job share basis, or jobs where flexibility of working hours would allow you to avoid the nightmare trip to work on public transport at peak time.

Equally, an employer is not allowed to discriminate against you because you have a mental health condition.  You do not have to tell the interview panel the exact nature of your condition, just that you are covered by the DDA.  It is up to the organisation to find about what adjustments are required, by taking advice from an independant medical professional, to make sure that you are accommodated, but the exact nature of the condition should remain confidential.

Applying for Jobs

When applying for jobs, I would recommend the following strategy:  Include a covering letter with your application stating “I have a medical condition covered by the Disability Discrimination Act.  I require time off for medical appointments and some flexibility of working hours.  Other minor adjustments may be required.”  No reasonable employer can deny these requests.  Note that I have not mentioned exactly what the medical condition is, as you are entitled to keep this confidential.

You may be reading this article, and cynically saying to yourself “Yes but they would still find a reason not to employ me if I disclose my condition and ask for adjustments”.  I would agree, that unfortunately, this is always a risk, but this is where your job application skills and marketing strategy comes in.  I would stick to applying for jobs in large organisations with an equality and diversity strategy where there is a clearly defined person specification and job description.

You must then meticulously prepare your application to cover every single area of the person specification, concentrating on the essential criteria.  Address each item in a headed list and give an example of how you meet this criteria as concisely as possible.  Use examples from past jobs, your voluntary or personal life.

Preparing for and Handling the Interview

Use the same strategy for preparing for the interview.  Concentrate on the person specification and think of questions you may be asked.  Think of concise answers expanding on the examples you have given on your application form.  Research the organisation and think of a few questions to ask them.  Safe questions include asking about training and development opportunities or questions relating to the main tasks of the job.

Your employer may ask for more information about the condition at interview.  I would recommend answering direct questions truthfully in terms that they can understand e.g. “I have a stress related condition where I may occasionally require extra support, or time off to attend medical appointments”.  This covers you and presents the condition on the best possible light.  If the interviewer probes further, simply say that you would be happy to discuss it with an Occupational Health Officer.

These strategies have helped me and I have never been out of work.  I hope that they also help you to get back into employment or to get another job.  Next time, I will discuss how to manage sickness absence at work.

How to deal with sickness absence

We’ve all been there, where the warning signs seem to creep up on us.  In the hypomanic phase it could just be a change in sleeping pattern to start, followed by overworking, talking non stop, spending money and over socialising.  Colours appear brighter and everything seems connected with no shortage of meaningful coincidences that all relate to you.  Anything could trigger it – a change of job, house move, bereavement or stress at work but the main trigger is usually stress in one form or another.

Know the signs and be ready to act

The most important thing to do, if you want to keep your job is to know the signs and be ready to act.  Keep a record of your warning signs and symptoms of returning mania or depression in a list and regularly check them off.  Have you exhibited any unusual behaviour in the last week?  Are you sleeping?  Are you having any unusual thoughts?  Is there any evidence for these thoughts?  Could it really be true that you are working for MI5 or are about to be honoured in a prestigious event?  Are you really important enough?

If you are experiencing any of these thoughts or behaviours, then contact your GP, psychiatrist or CPN and get an urgent appointment to see them.  Early intervention at this stage can prevent an episode of illness.  You may only need a minor change of medication, and a few days off work.  This is a lot better than continuing the uncharacteristic behaviour, insulting your boss and ending up in the psychiatric ward.

What do I tell work?

The next dilemma is, what to tell work.  In the first instance, I would recommend following your employer’s sickness absence procedures very carefully.  This usually means telephoning your boss or HR department on the first day of absence with a brief explanation and indication of how long you will be off sick.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like this in practice.  I have found myself in the situation, where I am so paranoid, that I just can’t pick up the phone, and have ended up emailing my boss instead with a vague explanation of ”stress related illness”. Alternatively, you could ask a relative to phone in on your behalf, to explain that you are too ill to come to the phone.  It depends on how strict your organisation is about such procedures, but if they already know about your condition it may be worth working out a procedure that suits you in advance with your boss and HR.

Returning to work

Hopefully, you will know your warning signs and will have a support mechanism in place with your GP, psychiatrist and CPN, such that the amount of sickness absence is minimised, and you can return to work after no more than a couple of weeks sickness absence.  Before deciding to go back, I would make sure that you are fully better by testing yourself with various activities. Go to the supermarket on your own. Go to the shops in town on your own. Do a dummy run to work using your usual form of transport. Contact a friend at work and meet them for lunch or email them and catch up on the gossip.

Returning to work after a longer period of sickness absence should be carefully managed.  Under the UK Disability Discrimination Act, your employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that they accommodate you. Similar legislation may exist in some other countries and States.  This could include giving you a graduated return to work, allowing you to work from home for some of the time or redistributing the workload to make sure that you can settle back in to your job.

It is important that you feel comfortable returning to work after a long period of sickness absence and this should be carefully managed by your HR department. Your employer may send you to an Occupational Health Officer to assess the impact of your condition and if there are any adjustments the organisation can make to help you carry out your job. If this happens, they may ask your permission to contact your GP or psychiatrist for a report. You are entitled to see this report and make comments. You are also entitled to see the report the Occupational Health Doctor sends to your employer.

It is very important that the Occupational Health Officer listens to you and how bipolar disorder affects you as an individual and incorporates your recommendations in his/her response to the employer.  Bipolar disorder is a very individual illness with a different levels of severity, and different solutions suit different people.  Remember, under the DDA, as long as it is reasonable adjustment, you can ask for it, so think laterally.

I hope that these suggestions help you to successfully manage sickness absence at work.  If you have any questions about this article or require any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Further advice on sickness absence can be found on the UK Disability Rights Commission website:

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