employers are bad at managing anxiety
I have always considered myself a robust character. Indeed, I wore it as a badge of honour. Comments such as, “ I don’t know how you do it?” left me feeling validated. Chuck anything at me, and I could do it (or I’d give it a ruddy good try!) I was bulletproof. Or so I thought.
That was until a few years ago when for the first time in my life, I realised that I was fallible. Simply put – the pressures of work and life just became too much. Blindsided, I found myself in a hole that was a lot harder to get out of than I could ever have imagined. However, I am pleased to say that with the love and support of those around me, a little self-care (a term which I hate but over time I have grown to appreciate), and yes, some professional help, that I am now in a much better place.
I try to find the positive in everything and, whilst not the best chapter in my life, I now see this experience as a blessing. It was the wake-up call I needed – and just in the nick of time. Had I continued to soldier on, I suspect the fallout would have been far more serious for me and my family.
I now recognise that I was suffering from anxiety – which at times left me with an overwhelming sense of fear and dread. A constant barrage of intrusive and negative thoughts. A propensity to worry about things that were outside of my control. So, I have made changes. Adjustments, many relatively minor, which mean life is more manageable for me. I am not afraid to ask for support when needed. I am not afraid to say ‘no’ when things get too much. I try (with limited success) not to sweat the small stuff. However, it would be remiss of me to suggest those negative thoughts and fears don’t rear their ugly head from time to time. It’s a work in progress.
So, why am I sharing this with you?
Anxiety is often dismissed as trivial. A fleeting moment of insecurity that can be brushed off. And yes, more than one person did tell me just to “shake it off!” Whilst symptoms vary (and I recognise I was one of the lucky ones), for many, anxiety can be a debilitating condition that preoccupies every aspect of their daily life. A person who is diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) may be a disabled person in law (provided the symptoms are sufficiently long-term and serious) and, as such will be afforded protection from discrimination and their employer placed under a duty to make reasonable adjustments.
This could happen to anyone. I know my story is not unique. I speak to clients every day who share similar stories with me. I feel truly privileged when clients share their experiences and vulnerabilities with me, and my desire to get them the support they need motivates me daily.
We all have limits. I now see that recognising your limitations and asking for support is not a weakness but an act of strength and courage. This is particularly so in our professional lives, where asking for help can often be misconstrued as an admission that you aren’t up to the job.
Requests for help are often ignored by employers, who all too often appear to consider it not their problem. Their viewpoint is simply that you are paid to do a job – so do it. And if you can’t, they show you the door.
I don’t get this. Not just because helping someone in their time of need is the right thing to do. But also because it strikes me as being short-sighted. Often listening to a colleague (and I mean ‘really’ listening) and implementing supportive measures (which often are relatively minor or trivial) is all it takes. Yet time and time again, employers get it wrong. They adopt premature and heavy-handed practices and performance management policies which do little more than ramp up the pressure, causing employees to go off sick and ultimately may lead to dismissals and/or litigation.
This is why I read with some exasperation of a case of a doctor who was unable to drive on busy roads and motorways, because of her anxiety following a previous near miss traffic accident and who, following a period of sickness absence was given a work plan which contrary to the recommendations of Occupational Health required her to make a 40-minute commute. In Dr M Verma v Blackpool Teaching Hospital NHS Trust the Employment Tribunal found that Dr Verma had been discriminated against when the Trust failed to make reasonable adjustments.
Whilst not dismissing the severity of the claims, sadly the facts of this case are all too common. What I find particularly frustrating is that on reading this case, like so many others, litigation could, and should have been avoided. Had the Trust engaged in proper, meaningful consultation with the employee and Occupational Health advisors at an early stage, it seems to me this sorry tale could have been avoided. There was a workaround that could have resolved matters to each party’s satisfaction, but for reasons that are unclear, it seems the Trust was not willing to flex. Employers are often process-driven. They approach each case as a tick-box exercise with the modus operandi of getting the employee back to work as soon as possible. They need to do better.
Litigation is a vital tool in our armoury when tackling discrimination, but I recognise that litigation is not for the faint-hearted. It is lengthy and stressful, holds no guarantee of success and yes, requires deep pockets. My colleagues and I are expert negotiators. We provide support to disabled employees and work with them and their employers to ensure they have the support they need so they can fulfil their true potential and have safe working environments in which to flourish. We have a fantastic record of achieving our client’s aims without recourse to litigation.
Dr Verma was vindicated by the Tribunal. I congratulate her on taking her employer to task. However, it should not have come to that. It really shouldn’t be this hard.
This blog was written by Kate Lea, Senior Solicitor at didlaw.