In a sense one of the goals of Disability Inclusion is to create a workplace culture in which it is okay to say you are not okay.
In the past I have observed that everyone has times when a life circumstance bear down heavily for a time and we exhibit symptoms of what might be clinically described as depression and/or anxiety for a time. Added to that might be a burden of stress arising from personal circumstances, family or work, or a mix of any of them.
Generally speaking, our capacity for resilience kicks in when the circumstance has passed – but to what extent? That resilience is more than just a psychological capacity, it depends on our brains as well. In fact, nothing is just a psychological capacity. Contemporary brain research shows that a complex array of factors will influence the extent to which our capacity for resilience is activated – and at what speed.
We can’t have an idea of an optimal norm as a benchmark for everyone. In the past, in workplaces dominated by men, the ‘manly thing’ to do was to suck it up and move on. That meant repressing emotions like anxiety and grief – which later expressed in substitutional and toxic ways – like bullying.
A few years ago, a colleague struggled to cope with the demands of their role while coping with a dying parent in a nursing home that was not doing the right thing. They were the primary person responsible for monitoring the parent’s care, and their siblings were not only not supporting, but started to accuse and blame over what was happening.
It was an awful situation to be in, and my colleague eventually found the pressure too much and, after a struggle to juggle competing demands and pressures for over 6 months, they had a public melt down at work and took a month off to chill.
A dying parent can be a challenging experience if things are going well. With complexities of care and family politics such an experience can push a person to their own limits. It is worse when there is no let up at work either.
There are many situations that can push to the edge of our ability to maintain the mask of coping. Some come and go quickly, and others are drawn out over months or years.
Flexible work arrangements are essential for everyone
All this with my colleague happened before flexible working became a thing. I knew what was going on because we talked. They had to leave work early many days, and there were things that had to be done. But otherwise, nobody else knew there was a challenging life situation – until the melt down. Privacy was maintained and that melt down was attributed to another, unflattering and unkind reason that caused needless injury to reputation.
Not everyone is okay about exposing a very private drama to a manager, or to colleagues in general. Maybe a few confidantes will know, but they will likely be sworn to confidentiality. For quite a few staff, their manager would be the last person they would share details of their private lives with.
How to allow adult staff to be grown ups
I was listening to an audiobook discussing the evolution of management recently. The author observed that in the old command and control approach – still a legacy in many settings today – adults were treated like ‘children’. Their work performance was scrutinised to an extreme degree. They had to seek permission to take a toilet break. They were subject to crude reward and punishment regimes. They judgment was not respected, and their opinions never sought. Status trumped experience and expertise.
Now I didn’t like the use of the term ‘children’ here at all. But I understood the intent – to denote that an adult person was treated in a lesser manner at work. People who were social peers outside work were forced into a hierarchical structure in which those in subordinate roles were considered incapable of expressing the same level of agency. A fully responsible adult making essential and competent decisions about their private life was transformed into a less competent person the moment they signed on at work each morning.
This legacy lingers still. It still informs policies and practices. It is getting much better in some workplaces, but in others there is still a vast area of improvement needed.
The reflex at management level is to doubt the integrity of a staff member and to require revelation of private detail so the manager can determine whether they agree. This becomes apparent the moment a manager asks, “Why….?
If there is evidence that the majority of staff are disposed to exploit and abuse flexibility, there might be good reason to interrogate a staff member seeking an accommodation related to their workload or work time. But I have found no evidence this is the case. There may be a situation where a genuine workplace situation is such that accommodating a request for an adjustment, or an accommodation represents a real problem for a manager and there may be a need to determine whether the staff member’s need is of sufficient urgency to warrant wearing the adverse consequences of a favourable decision.
I would observe that in a well-managed and psychologically healthy workplace staff members seeking an accommodation usually will factor in the impact of a request on their team. The impact of poor management is rarely understood by an organisation’s leaders, with the result that they are more disposed to support a manager who asserts a right to adjudicate on a request. This is a truth that has been confirmed time and again for me.
The legacy of Taylorist management thinking is tenacious. It suits individuals who are less disposed toward empathy and insight, because it confers situational authority, rather than earned relational respect.
In a respectful, psychologically healthy, and safe workplace a staff member is treated as a responsible and honest adult until they demonstrate that such respect is not properly due them. There will be people whose psychological make up makes such respect a risky proposition. But they will be rare. This is the problem – the exceptions are treated as the rule. This is the Taylorist legacy. It may have been ‘scientific’ at one time. Its not now. Our values have changed.
What does all this matter?
Staff with diagnosed psychological disorders are subject to discrimination just because they reveal they have a ‘formal diagnosis’. There is a stigma attached to such a revelation.
There is no inherent or essential ‘need to know’ why a staff member seeks an accommodation. A request made by a responsible adult person concerning their ability to perform their role to the best of their ability should be taken on face value.
Let’s think this through. Suppose a staff member says they have a need to end work at 14:00 on a particular day. It doesn’t matter when they say it. Imagine a list of ‘good’ reasons why that might happen. Now imagine some ‘bad’ reasons. How many of those ‘bad’ reasons might be down to an adverse emotional state, and may be part of a more complex life challenge? Who’s to judge?
Back at the beginning of 2020 I started a Change the Conversation initiative to alter the way we talked about mental health and mental illness – two terms I believe to be utterly inappropriate. I wanted to explore developing ways of talking about our inner states using normal language, and not straying into the area of psychiatric or psychological jargon.
I did this in response to conversations with a colleague with a formally diagnosed psychological condition. There had been no progress on stigma of ‘mental illness’ over the past 18 months, despite our efforts. It remains unresolved still.
Lately I have been wondering why it is even an issue. Why should trying to ‘fix’ people with adverse and discriminatory attitudes be the only approach? Why not eliminate the need to ‘disclose’ at all?
The trend toward greater flexibility is growing. But that can seem like a trade – if you tell me why, I will grant permission – that nobody should be obliged to make. The better way, which honours adult agency is one of advising and acknowledging. And unless, and until, this becomes a genuine concern about work performance and capacity it doesn’t include disclosing a reason.
A staff member with a diagnosed psychological condition should never need to say why they need an accommodation. If work performance or capacity becomes an issue, it should be dealt with in a manner that is still respectful of a need or desire to not disclose.
The prime issue is not a question of disclosure, but of a need to know.
Some readers may instantly object that there are exceptions. I agree, and it is worthwhile having a shared conversation about that. This is why I distinguish between an accommodation and an adjustment. But the context for such a conversation should not be an attempt to claw back the privileges of Taylorism, but to rather clarify what management as if people really matter looks like.
Management has always been predicated upon the assumption that the organisation has the power, which it distributes to its managers, and the staff have none (which is why unions). That’s old hat. These days an organisation should be the mechanisms and processes by which adults possessing and retaining their full agency come together to perform tasks in the service of agreed objectives for agreed rewards and penalties. The obligation to ‘sell’ one’s privacy for the right to vary how one works is no longer okay.
In a psychologically safe workplace, a staff member may feel perfectly free to say why. But even so others may not, for a variety of reasons – increasingly so a diverse workforce
The stigma some persist in applying to ‘mental illness’ may not go away, because the personal right to have such a prejudice cannot denied. But the power to exert that bias can be removed by making the right to know a rare exception – and then not even one a manager may have access to.
This is not an argument for chaos, only the retention of agency and dignity in the negotiation of a need for an accommodation. To do this the right and power of managers to demand to know why must be re-imagined – not as a right granted by holding a power position, but a privilege granted in response to respect and empathy.