When I was applying to join the Bank of England’s graduate scheme, I remember thinking carefully about whether to disclose my mental health problems. In the ‘yes’ column, there was my general desire to be honest, and a strong feeling that I shouldn’t need to hide anything. But in the ‘no’ column, there was something far more convincing: the potential that someone in HR, or a hiring manager, would send my application to the bottom of the pile. I knew that must have been a slim possibility. But at the same time, I couldn’t see what I could gain from disclosure. Given the risk, the choice was obvious: I should tick the ‘No’ box and move on.
I’d never worked in a large organisation before and didn’t want to endanger my progression. On starting work, I’d made it my rule that I would always say ‘yes’ to extra projects and the resulting opportunities to learn new things and make new contacts. I especially didn’t want anyone to hesitate to give me those opportunities out of a misplaced fear that I couldn’t handle it. And I didn’t want people to think I was going to be taking sick days all the time for ‘no reason’.
After six months or so, I thought I’d done a good enough job that there was less risk I’d be seen as a malingerer. When I had to take a couple of days off for (physical) illness, my line manager asked me if there was anything he should know. I took that opportunity to speak about my panic disorder. As it turns out, there was no need for me to have worried. He asked if there was anything which I’d like to change about the way I worked, and it was a very normal conversation.
Since then, I’ve had a few different line managers, and all have had the same attitude. They’ve made clear that what matters is my ability to work to my potential. If I need to adjust things a little to make that happen, then so be it. And as I’ve gone on to become a manager myself, I do my best, in turn, to let my team know not to sweat the small stuff. But I know from discussions with friends and members of the Thriving from the Start Network that not all managers are the same way.
Unfortunately, some managers – and they are present in all organisations – can make things worse. They don’t see that sometimes the way to get the best from people is to ease up a little. Let someone go home early, and you might lose an hour or two of work today. But the long-run benefit of that gesture could be hugely positive; not only in terms of goodwill, but also by potentially heading off an acute mental health event. Sacrificing an hour or two today could save a few days later on.
As I’ve developed in my career and taken on management responsibilities myself, I’m always mindful of the difference that a little flexibility can make. For me, it’s most helpful to be able to go to the gym during business hours a few days a week. It helps to clear my head and ensure I’m working at my best. Provided I deliver on my responsibilities and make it to my meetings, I’m free to duck out at any time of the day. For others, it might be working from home more often, or asking for extra support on ‘off’ days. Part of my job is to ensure people feel empowered to make these adjustments and to help to fit work around them.
As our members progress in their careers and begin to manage others, I hope they have the confidence to set the tone. Change must come not only from top-down but also from the bottom-up.