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When Work Knowingly Makes Your Physical and Mental Health Worse

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It was recently Deaf Awareness Week and Mental Health Awareness week at the same time. That was probably a coincidence, but deaf people are twice as likely to experience mental health issues such as depression and anxiety (compared to hearing people) because of practical and social problems encountered in everyday life. Even people with mild hearing loss have nearly twice the risk of developing dementia as people without hearing loss. Anxiety, depression and cognitive problems are also more common among those with vestibular conditions, such as Meniere’s disease  —  like me.

With Meniere’s, the physical symptoms often affect mental health in a vicious circle, with stress also being a trigger for physical responses. It is not surprising that hearing loss, tinnitus and vertigo can cause emotional distress, especially when these symptoms are unpredictable and the condition is permanent  —  but less well understood are the cognitive aspects of vestibular disorders such as problems with concentration, coordination, and memory. Other psychological aspects include: the invisibility of the illness (which can lead to lack of understanding and social isolation), newfound pressure on relationships or at work because you can no longer do the same things as before, and feelings of loss and frustration because of this change in lifestyle and sense of self.

I have come to realize I need to be realistic about the impact of Meniere’s disease on my physical and mental health in order to manage it better  —  and one way to address these difficulties is to accept, understand   and ask for help and understanding. For me, this has included asking to reduce my hours slightly at work. This could be agreed as a “reasonable adjustment” because Meniere’s is covered by the Equality Act 2010, but I also have the legal right to request part-time hours under flexible-working regulations.

I work as an English teacher and as with any long-term health condition there is always the worry of it affecting my job or having to take too much time off, but I will do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen (including spending my weekends in bed to recuperate and taking a pay cut if necessary). Unfortunately, some things are frustratingly beyond my control and the reason why I’m off work now is not directly because of Meniere’s disease or because of the day to day stresses of teaching, but because of the distressing process of asking work for help and getting it repeatedly ignored, questioned, denied and delayed  —  followed by an equally tortuous and lengthy grievance process which does nothing to protect the well-being of the aggrieved. I don’t think it’s uncommon, but it is incredibly stressful.

Mental Health Awareness Week focused on stress this year and research has shown that stress is a key factor in mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and in some instances, self-harm and suicide. A research report, “Stress: Are we coping?” by the Mental Health Foundation, notes that “work” and “long-term health conditions” are the top two stressors and it is recognized that this stress is often exacerbated in individuals feeling unsupported and powerless.

According to a TUC survey, stress is the biggest single health and safety problem in the workplace in the UK. As well as the reasonable adjustment duty, which is supposed to remove the disadvantages disabled people face, workplaces also have a duty to safeguard staff health under the Health and Safety at Work Act. Employers are beginning to become more aware of this, with work/life balance and stress management policies as well as employee assistance programs designed to provide support. All good in principle, but at my workplace it translates into stickers silently appearing on desks during mental health week, encouraging people to talk or switch off their computer for 10 minutes  —  and a work helpline that managers can direct their employees to at times of need. How helpful are these policies if they’re not implemented properly and what happens if the root cause of stress is being is this avoidance of accountability by work?

As occupational health and my doctor have noted, my current ill health and absence is due to stress and anxiety as a result of the situation at work regarding refusal to make reasonable adjustments and then painfully refusing to accept responsibility or even acknowledge the consequences of this  —  which is ironic considering that is what the reduction in hours was supposed to remedy. Now occupational health have recommended further adjustments alongside my original request for a reduction in hours, complicating things further. Meanwhile, work goes to great lengths to take no action on these and avoids blame. Not only are they not helping, but they are knowingly making my physical and mental health worse. That is quite hard to reconcile as an employee.

By requesting a slight reduction in hours, I was trying to be proactive in managing my health for the benefit of me and my employer – not because I’m lazy, difficult, want “special treatment” or can’t do my job, as my employers have variously suggested. Their duty to protect staff health and promote equality is also supposed to be anticipatory and if employers are serious about disability and mental health initiatives, they must do more than pay lip-service to policy  —  it needs to be reflected in practice too.

Getty Image by kieferpix

This story originally appeared on Starfish Mainly Obeys.

Originally published: July 6, 2018
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