This is a question I addressed at our Mental Health Awareness Week event in Newport last night.
Unfortunately, there are still people who think that suffering from mental illness – even something relatively common like depression or anxiety – makes you a nutter, or a malingerer, or (perhaps most dangerous of all) simply not up to the job.
And in this high-powered, high-flying profession of ours, it’s tempting to think that IP simply is a stressful environment, so if you can’t take the pressure, perhaps you shouldn’t be here.
Yet by taking that line, we risk rejecting or side-lining many talented people. And those who stay are often miserable or afraid: afraid of weakness; afraid of failure. So they’re less productive than they should be. And we lose valuable time through absenteeism, or indeed “presenteeism”, when people spend inordinately long hours in the workplace merely to show their commitment rather than to achieve anything extra.
That’s an unhealthy, and divisive, way of working.
To achieve true inclusivity in the workplace, we have to be prepared to recognise mental illness, to accept it for what it is – an illness – and to allow those who suffer from it to seek treatment and support, without stigma, without fear of letting their colleagues down or losing their jobs.
Because mental illness doesn’t have to be a life sentence. And it certainly isn’t a sign of failure. Far from distinguishing between the capable and the incapable, it can actually strike down some of our best people. But it doesn’t mean that anybody has to be written out of the workforce for good. Acute mental illnesses can be treated; you can pull through them. Chronic conditions can be managed, with appropriate lifestyle and workstyle changes that help you continue to function and support you through the bad times.
I want our three events this week to be the start of a whole new conversation about mental health in the IP professions. A conversation that’s open and unthreatening and non-judgmental. That treats mental illness with the same respect and sympathy as, say, a broken bone or a bout of flu.
This is a conversation that takes a different approach to the causes and effects of mental health problems. Because it’s time we stopped accepting that IP is a stressful environment, and recognised that it’s within our power – and therefore also our responsibility – to make it less so. We can reduce the triggers for mental illness, in particular stress. We can make work more comfortable for everyone, and find more time and space for those who suffer.
We can – and we must – make “health and safety at work” include safeguards for mental as well as physical health.
And I’m willing to bet that if we do these things, then actually our overall productivity will increase.
So this is a conversation about tolerance and understanding, about accommodating people and supporting them. The cornerstones of inclusivity, in fact.
And that’s why it’s on the agenda for IP Inclusive.
Our discussions in Newport were stimulating, engaging and above all, full of genuine concern for this important issue. I felt proud to be part of a profession that’s beginning to scrutinise its response to mental illness and looking to improve things.
Huge thanks to Wynne-Jones IP and the IPO, who organised that event together. And thank you too to Kilburn & Strode, who hosted a similar event in London at the same time, and to HGF who ran a breakfast meeting in Leeds on Wednesday. All three events were well attended and yielded thought-provoking, candid and constructive discussions. As part of Mental Health Awareness Week 2017, I believe we have begun to make a difference to the way that mental illness is viewed within the IP professions, and to the ways in which we safeguard the mental well-being of those who work here.
Now we need to make sure that the conversation continues. Because that’s what these three events were about: beginning a conversation – and ending the taboo. Thank you to everyone who attended. Please go out and share your experiences.
IP Inclusive leader