Fixer: Tired of their mental health jibes

25 Apr 2019 By PM Editorial

My colleagues don't take mental ill-health seriously. How can I confront their prejudices?

I am a relatively junior member of an HR team. I’m also quite new and while I enjoy my role, I can’t help but feel that the organisation is strongly prejudiced against mental illness. The part which bothers me most is that it is clearly evident within the HR team itself and I feel this sets a really poor precedent for the rest of the company. As someone who struggles with a mental illness myself (manageable but diagnosed), I feel terrified to say anything and being new and more junior means I have no influence. What can be done, if anything, to turn around this negativity?

It must be frustrating and sometimes debilitating to be in an environment where people are offering ill-informed and potentially prejudiced views about something that affects you so intimately, and I understand why you feel the need to act.

Let’s be charitable to your colleagues and assume they don’t intend to be offensive and may be displaying ignorance unthinkingly. In such circumstances, if they realised they had someone in their team who experienced mental ill-health, they might be supportive and correct their behaviour. Reality often forces people to think before they speak and confront their prejudices, and the chances are – depending on the size of your team – there are others who have had mental health conditions in the past who are equally uncomfortable with some of the discussions that are going on.

I’d advise disclosing your condition to your line manager. You don’t have to make a formal declaration, but it will mean you have an organisational ally should any issues involving your team arise in future. And with any luck, they will realise some of the conversation in HR has been unsuitable and begin to subtly police it in future. 

If the issue persists, you could consider confiding in a colleague you consider trustworthy about why you feel it is insensitive to be airing these views – not just because of your own condition but because HR has a vital strategic role in supporting those with mental health issues and handling any legal fallout.

Clearly, if this prejudice is real and sustained, your colleagues’ behaviour is not only wrong but potentially leaves the business open to legal challenge. That’s hugely disappointing in an HR department and you shouldn’t hesitate to raise a formal grievance if it comes to it.

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