I have listened to this podcast a couple of times now, because I wanted to put my finger on something that has bothered me about it. During the podcast, Gabe Howard describes being let go from a job that he was very good at, because his coworkers saw him getting accommodations for his illness that they couldn’t get. And rather than upset the entire team, they let him go.
It got me thinking about how to deal with that as an employer. I’m going to leave out the legal obligations for employers here, because that will vary from state to state and country to country, but I want to spend a few minutes thinking about how this is a result of stigma. Stigma that shouldn’t be there, but clearly is.
In this case, Gabe’s coworkers were angry because they thought he was getting extra benefits for something that wasn’t real, or that he could easily be faking, mental health problems.
I can’t help but wonder if they’d have felt the same way if it were a visible injury.
Let me give to a comparable situation. Mine.
No, not my past experience with mental health, but my current one, with a knee injury. As you may have seen on social media, I recently hurt my knee. Nothing terribly serious, just some damage to the meniscus that requires me to wear a knee brace outside of the office. So, each day I have my brace on to get from the parking lot downtown to our building, and then I get to remove it and work at my desk. According to my doctor, however, while I am free to continue to work, I do have some limitations. As he described it, I don’t get to take part in moving office furniture day, or crawl around running cables.
Naturally, we recently had a trial that required carrying a bunch of equipment around, and running cables across the room.
Someone else had to step in and do that. I couldn’t. Was that fair to my coworkers who had to step in and do that for me? Not really. Did anyone even blink an eye at it? No. They understood that right now I couldn’t do that task, so they went ahead and got it done. No big deal. I’ve even had people ask if I needed any other accommodations like parking closer, or a different chair. (I don’t really need that, but again, people were looking out for ways to accommodate my injury).
The thing is, in Gabe’s situation it wasn’t fair that he got things his coworkers did not. That’s true. It’s also not fair that he had to deal with a mental health condition when they didn’t. Also, in the workplace we do things that aren’t necessarily “fair” all the time. We make accommodations for different people in a variety of ways that have nothing to do with mental health. Is it “fair” that the single parent on the team tends not to work weekends and nights as often as other members? No, but would you like to be the one who complains about that? Of course not, we all know why that accommodation is made, and we’re fine with it. Is it “fair” when the tall guy has to get everything off the top shelf? Not really. Is it “fair” when you have to pick up extra work when a coworker is off for bereavement, or some emergency? No, but we make those accommodations all the time.
The difference is that we accept all of those as legitimate reasons to make accommodations. Too many people do not consider mental health issues as a legitimate reason. As a workplace you can either stand up to that and make a strong statement that mental health issues are absolutely a legitimate reason for accommodation and that you’ll do what you can to support any of your employees, or you could do the opposite, and send the message that mental health issues are illegitimate and will not be tolerated. So you better keep that hidden.
I know which kind of workplace I’d rather work in.