Admitting you’ve been signed off work due to stress or mental health issues can be tricky. But it shouldn’t be something you’re judged over.
It should be openly talked about.
Having time off work because of your mental health should be no different to being signed off when you’re physically ill. Mental health issues can be much tougher to come back from than a cold.
My experience of being signed off work
I’ve been working for myself for ten years, and I’ve had some of the most challenging times of my life. Yet, I’ve still managed to carry on running my business. But in the past, I’ve been in jobs where I’ve felt overloaded. I’ve been given unrealistic workloads and tried to juggle everything – but it eventually takes its toll. And there was a huge lack of understanding and empathy when it comes to mental health issues.
I am an anxious person. Being such a worrier is what has made me so successful because I’m always trying to stay ahead of the curve. My fear of failure pushes me to fight harder. But sometimes, it tips too far in the wrong direction, and I end up buried in a mountain of anxiety.
Most of us have probably had times at work where we’ve gone into the toilets crying. Or when we’ve made an excuse to leave so that we can pull ourselves together. But what happens when the pressure and anxiety build to a point where you can’t carry on any more? You get signed off work.
This happened to me, and it was scary. Not being able to go into work without having a panic attack or completely freaking out about work stress. Struggling to hold it together in meetings. Crying a lot. It was a dark time.
Judgement and a lack of understanding from colleagues
To this day, I remember just how bad other people made me feel. My colleagues weren’t impressed.
There was little support. In fact, people actually judged me.
“Why does she get time off when I’m stuck here having to help with her work?”
I was met with contempt from my team, and this just exacerbated the issue. I felt extremely ashamed. The general consensus was that I was weak, and that surely nothing that bad was going on to cause me to not be able to work?
I eventually realised that the job I was doing just wasn’t for me. I decided it wasn’t worth feeling that way. When you’re unable to cope, that’s your mind’s way of trying to sound the alarm. Earth to human, whatever you’re doing – it’s not working! Thankfully I eventually recognised this.
Why should I work myself into the ground for someone else’s benefit? I knew right then and there that it was time to work for myself. But the transition would have been far easier and less traumatic if I had the mental support I needed and there was a lot less judgement.
Are attitudes changing, really?
Thankfully, ten years on, attitudes towards mental health at work have started to change. But the stigma still lives on, and we’re still not where we should be. Not enough has been done to help people, and it’s starting to really show. In fact, a record number of people get signed off from work.
“Research conducted by law firm GQ|Littler, based on NHS data for the year ending September 2022, showed an 11 per cent increase in the number of fit notes issued – up to 10.4 million.”
The figures say it all. Employers have to do more to create a healthy working environment. They need to do more to support people when they’re struggling. Well-being and mental health need to be at the forefront of every business. Because if employers neglect to invest in these things, they’ll lose a lot of money in the long run.
Preventing someone from being signed off in the first place is obviously the best strategy. Putting procedures and measure in place to check in with staff and monitor how much pressure they’re under. Laws that prevent businesses from doing things like getting one person to do two people’s jobs without being paid more or having stronger punishment for workplace bullying.
As an employee, you know as soon as you set foot in a business that’s got a toxic culture. And often, despite knowing, it can be difficult to leave for a multitude of reasons (you can’t afford it, your self-esteem has been ruined, or you hope things will improve). Knowing the signs of being stressed at work can help people realise when it’s time to do something about it.
The Government has announced a supposed £400m plan to increase how much physical and mental support is available to workers. But how far does this go in improving mental health at work? Mental Health charity Mind aren’t too impressed by the government’s plans.
“There were no measures that would help prevent people’s mental health from declining in the first place. And there was little to help employers create more mentally healthy workplaces, so work is something people can get back to and stay well while doing.”
Reducing the stigma around mental health struggles at work
I think more needs to be done to reduce the stigma of being signed off from work due to mental health issues.
We are all human. We all have moments where we struggle. Life can be cruel and test us in unimaginable ways, and when this happens, and we can’t manage, it would be nice to feel supported rather than judged.
When people are struggling mentally, they’ve vulnerable. If they don’t get the support they need, it can make things ten times worse. Getting support early on could prevent many people from eventually having to be signed off from work.
Research by Mckinsey has found that when employers list their top mental health priorities, stigma is reduced. So simply by having mental health policies and schemes in place to improve people’s well-being, employers are creating awareness and helping to reduce judgement.
I wish my previous jobs had more measures in place to help support staff. Also, having been freelance for over a decade, I’ve realised there’s not much help out there for freelancers either. Resources for people who work from home and freelance would help them manage a lot better. Because freelance workers are extremely important to the economy, it’s worth recognising there could be more help to support them.
Let’s keep moving forward…
I hope this article sheds some light on what it’s like to be signed off work. Things are creeping in the right direction, but it’s earth-shatteringly clear that way more needs to be done.
So let’s keep the conversation open and reduce the stigma around mental health issues at work.