I’m going to write about a topic I know nothing about, at least not from the viewpoint of an expert in the published research, but as that doesn’t generally stop many other people I don’t see why it should inhibit me. I have after all worked for most of my life so I’ve plenty of lived experience; and I’ve treated many people who have been struggling to get back into work, or suffering ill-health as a consequence of the toxic environment in which they work. Its eighteen months now since I retired from the University, and a year since I gave up my clinical work and drastically reduced my workload. I’ve been told that work is something that is good for our mental health, so I can only tell you that I feel better physically and mentally overall than I have for several years. People tell me I look younger. I regularly apologise for having thrown in the towel; but it has been something of a fight- to get to the point where I could be done with the job before it did for me.
Please don’t get me wrong, I always enjoyed the interactions with patients and service users, and if I miss anything, it’s the feeling of making a difference in a person’s life; connecting with them and helping them to achieve some change. However I do know that if I had stayed in the NHS rather than being able to move into an academic post quite early in my career I would have been forced into taking even earlier retirement many years ago. I didn’t find the health service to be a sympathetic employer, either in the face of my own episodic periods of depression, which sometimes required time off work, or that of my patients who worked in the system- doctors, nurses and allied professionals. Not only was the macho style of management one of the factors that made it difficult for people to return to work with some degree of flexibility, it was sometimes a key factor in a person becoming depressed or severely anxious in the first place. I personally experienced bullying on more than one occasion, which contributed to several months off work. I know I’m less resilient than I sometimes appear to be.
My patients in the private sector had very mixed experiences. I remember one man who was criticised at work for needing to take breaks to ensure he ate at regular times- he had type 1 diabetes. When he got depressed they sacked him. Another patient with longer-term mental health problems was a poster-girl for a supported back to work scheme. The supermarket who took her on were very keen to be involved, but after a few months, after the support had been withdrawn and a ‘success story’ publicised, expected her to ‘work like everyone else’. Her voices returned as she became increasingly stressed and paranoid. She lost the job. In contrast, a person who worked for a large multinational company was allowed to return to work gradually over an extended period of time, and the occupational health department regularly consulted with all of us to ensure we were all agreed with the plan. They viewed my patient as a valued employee with expertise and experience they did not want to lose. I wish I could say that the NHS generally responded in a similar way. But it didn’t.
So where does this take me? Well, now the end goal of Recovery seems to be to get into paid work. Indeed attendance at Recovery Colleges has been sanctioned in order to apparently assist people with mental health problems to do so. Aside from the fact that, if Recovery were so straightforward all we needed to do was attend a course in it (and I don’t believe it is for many people), I’m very concerned about what we are sending many people back into. Not everyone is an academic who can work flexibly and take time off without risking their employment, I know that. However many more people do jobs from which they gain little sense of self-worth or value beyond simply earning a living. I’m a working-class girl. My parents both clocked in at 7.30 every morning and neither of them would have described their jobs as particularly fulfilling. What they did get was company, an opportunity to use some of their skills at least and a pay-packet. As a student I worked on supermarket checkouts, served in a bar and waited on tables for employers who varied considerably in their attitudes to ill-health. I wouldn’t have coped with those jobs at all if I had been depressed- nor would I have been in any great hurry to return. I personally know people who would never be able to cope with the stresses of regular employment again, yet they are repeatedly reassessed with the constant threat of losing their benefits. This just acts as a further stressor- we all know its cruel and has led to suicide.
So I have doubts about paid employment being the right goal for everyone. Surely it isn’t just about ‘work’ but how we spend our day? Yes, I know we have to bring in an income, but I’ve personally met very few people who really didn’t want to work. What they wanted was a supportive plan to help them move towards employment. A plan which might also involve volunteering and further study or training to gradually help them rediscover a sense of who they were, where they were going, and what goals they could realistically achieve. Not a simple ‘course’ but a journey, which might end in a regular job, but might not if that wasn’t right or possible. A much more humane solution than we are presented with now.
So don’t tell me that work is always good for me, because I know it isn’t. If it was, I wouldn’t be sitting here, feeling quite relaxed, writing this blog. I’d be on call. Or writing another grant proposal.