Friday, 11 January 2013

Speak Up

Just before leaving the office last Friday evening I was invited to participate in a survey by one of the world’s leading specialists in recruitment solutions and consulting, they were seeking my opinions on the employment of individuals with criminal records.  I was interested to see the manner in which they classified criminals, the range stretched from murderers through alcohol or substance abuse addicts to individuals with driving offences.  By coincidence, I have also recently been interviewed by an individual undertaking academic research into the provision of counselling support within the work environment.  There’s a fine line between criminality, addiction and illness.  Illness, if not treated appropriately, can make people behave in antisocial and potentially even criminal ways.

A few years ago, my other half and I went on what should have been a dream trip to India.  Don’t get me wrong, much of it was amazing – and I intend to return.  I often think of Shimla – a hill station retreat, with magical views of the Himalayas, providing a welcome escape from the searing heat in the plains during the summer – in parts the town is very English, with Tunbridge Wells style mock tudor houses, a typical stone church, local theatre and Edwardian era hotels (with hard mahogany beds, beaded lampshades, billiard rooms, stone hot water bottles and names such as Savoy and Cecil), perched on the vertiginous hillside; monkeys regularly disrupted the electricity by severing the cables strung between the roofs.


Shimla monkey and Himalayas
I too was disrupted – I was suffering from an adverse reaction to the Malaria tablets prescribed by my UK doctor and swooping depression gripped me in its darkness for much of the time, making life seem futile and myself loathsome.  It was with difficulty that my companion persuaded me to come out of our room and I found the precipitous fall into the valley below dangerously alluring.  It was not until I had this experience that I fully appreciated how debilitating mental illness can be and how little control an individual has over it – you cannot “just snap out of it” and often, while suffering, your thoughts and reactions are not rational.  I am ashamed to admit that, although I thought I comprehended mental illness and the impact that it can have on an employee and their work, my understanding was purely on an intellectual basis and I needed the actual experience of being trapped inside a deep well of despair to make me feel differently about the issues and how I approach mental health in the workplace.

It is extraordinary what an impact emotions and mental well-being have on us physically - I am sure you are familiar with the wobble that affects your voice when you are distressed.  I currently have a paralysed right vocal chord and hence I am dependant on my left in order to speak.  It is noticeable that if I am stressed (for example when I have to present at a demanding meeting or hold a difficult conversation with an employee) there is an audible effect on my voice (it loses tone, rises in pitch and becomes "breathy").   I was in a video conference early yesterday and had some challenging facts to communicate, a colleague in Switzerland noticed the change in my voice and, unable to hear me easily, asked me to speak up.  He and I were both embarrassed when I explained that I could not.  I would have made things easier for both of us if I had let people be aware of the current challenges that I am trying to overcome.  I’m not quite sure why I haven’t made my predicament common knowledge amongst my colleagues – perhaps I don’t want to be seen as weak, called names (even as a joke) or viewed as incapable...

People often don’t speak out – especially when they view their problem as being embarrassing, emotionally or mentally based or of a personal nature and hence inappropriate to be raised at work.  The big news story in the UK today is the joint report by the Metropolitan Police and NSPCC (National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children) into the sexual allegations made against the former UK celebrity Jimmy Savile, "Giving Victims a Voice".  Without wishing to diminish in any way the awfulness of the experiences that the victims had to endure, there are some serious learnings for all of us both in and outside work.  The problem was not unearthed (and hence some incidents prevented) because many of the victims chose to be silent and the few who did speak out were not given credence by people in authority.  It now transpires that there were at least 214 crimes, impacting children from as young as eight.  Savile indulged himself in numerous locations, including care homes, at the BBC, in schools and NHS properties and hospitals.   There is no doubt, from the comments of those who have now spoken about their experiences, that Savile's predatory behaviour has had a permanent impact on their lives. 

I am concerned at what prevents people from raising issues before a trouble escalates.  My reticence about my own health is a small example of an individual not wishing to stand out or to be viewed as problematical or incapable within a particular situation.  We need to be mindful of the fact that times change and so do attitudes.  Perhaps the Savile victims did not speak out because of the environment at the time (witness the descriptions now being provided of the internal culture at the BBC in the 1970s in which women felt it easier to accept sexist behaviour than complain )entertainment/tv/news/bbc-bosses-showed-cavalier-attitude-to-culture-of-harassment-8229941.html ).  Returning briefly to the survey I was asked to complete last Friday – even fifty years ago, by knowingly employing a homosexual in London I would have introduced “a criminal” into the work environment (homosexuality was not decriminalised in England and Wales until 1967).  Mental health is still seen as a taboo subject and seldom raised by employees (unless they plan to take you to tribunal for “work place induced stress”!).  But if people don't speak out things will never change.  

Mental health is explored to a significant degree in Shakespeare’s King Lear.  Lear is driven to madness by the indignity and circumstances he brings upon himself (with friends and family turned against him); his Fool (in effect his court jester) is often the only sensible voice, speaking the truth and saying how things should be in a difficult world; Poor Tom (whose madness is feigned by Edgar as a form of disguise and protection) is deemed by Lear to have become insane due to suffering similar misfortunes to himself.  Poor Tom makes the audience question what madness is (much as the reader does when reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Catch 22).   We live in challenging times.  Increasingly organisations need to employ a diverse workforce who can help them navigate a successful path through the rapidly changing business environment.  We must create a workplace where people are not scared and where they feel safe speaking out for the benefit of themselves, others and the business. 

King Lear, Act III, Scene IV engraving by John Boydell c1792

Given the at times disturbing subjects covered in this blog, I think you deserve a smile for making it this far.  The below video shows what can be achieved if you are prepared to utilise your knowledge and skills but operate in a different way from the norm, especially if you are a little baaarmy (excuse the poor pun): 

Many of the world’s most notable people are those who have been/are prepared to stand out from the crowd, say what they think and achieve unusual things.  It is up to us as employers to create a workplace where a diverse range of individuals are able to thrive and contribute and where their differences are embraced and seen as adding value.  


  1. Hi Kate - great post, and if speaking up is to become more common place, then I think it helps for people to write pieces like this. No one is alone eh.

    Thanks - Doug

  2. An excellent and balanced article Kate. Your views can, of course, be broadened still to many more types of minority interest; we probably do need more people in positions of responsibility to have an enlightened approach to recruitment. I wonder, as recruiters do we have a duty of care to clients to mention such things or might we be deemed to be discriminatory if we do?

  3. Hi Kate - really interesting post. I'm not sure I see the link quite as clearly between the culture of tacit approval around child abuse in the entertainment industry and the challenges that people facing speaking openly about mental health issues. Speaking out against child abuse/criminality without fear of censure or disbelief is (and should be) different to working towards a place where saying "I have been diagnosed with depression" is as straightforward as saying "I have been diagnosed with diabetes".

    Which leads onto my answer to Gavan. Firstly, don't be too sure that mental health is a 'minority concern'. It may seem that way because so few people are open about it. When I posted about my own experience of mental health I received a lot of replies saying that 1 in 4 is a very conservative estimate. Secondly, and in answer to your 'duty of care' query; would you feel the need to disclose chronic Asthma to a client? How about a kidney that was removed last year? Your question implies in some way that everyone who has had a mental illness may be unfit to perform a role, which is an interesting supposition.

    1. Thanks Lorna - the connection in my mind came from the damage that abuse does to individuals and how that might impact on their mental health.

    2. Hi Lorna, I'm really not making any assumptions at all; quite the opposite, I am asking a genuine question to which I suspect there is a legal answer. Yes there are circumstances when I think it would be responsible to disclose asthma, when a client environment warrants it for instance. Similarly I disclose when a candidate needs disabled access or parking. Neither, I think, is discriminatory, rather horses for courses.

      It is frequently common to have to explain gaps on a CV; so advice, guidance and practical experience of how others might already have addressed this (should such a gap be due to mental ill health) is worthwhile, in my view.

      In that way recruiters may feel able to put forward candidates they might otherwise reject as "others have closer match to client requirements".

  4. Great article! Thanks for sharing and more power to you!