To mark Mental Health Awareness Week in May, Michael Sinyangwe opened up about his mental health problems to promote greater understanding and show that, with support, it is possible to cope in the workplace. 70 million work days are lost in the UK each year due to mental illness, and an estimated one in four people are affected by mental health problems.
Michael Sinyangwe landed a job as a technology consultant after graduating from business school. It wasn’t the job for him and, only a few months into the role, he started becoming depressed and suffering from psychotic episodes.
It was his first experience of mental health problems, and Michael didn’t feel he could talk about it. “I had this impression I had to keep it covered up,” he said, “because people would think badly of me.”
Michael, 29, from West London, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and it led to a period of being unable to work. With an estimated one in four people in the UK experiencing mental health problems, he believes more openness is needed to change attitudes to mental illness.
Employment and skills organisation Seetec is experienced in supporting people with mental health issues to find, and remain in, work. Michael signed up for a motivational course through Seetec’s Work Choice programme.
Seetec understands its customers’ needs around mental and physical health barriers, and employs specialist staff to support customers on their journey to employment. One such specialist in Mental Health, Sebastian Bosca, realised Michael was struggling in the group sessions and invited him to a one-to-one session.
Michael said: “I was able to open up to him, the first time I had talked about my problems. He made me realise I can’t remove myself from the world and helped me to be more positive.”
After months of group and individual discussions, Michael’s regained confidence in his ability to cope and has started a part-time job as a Carer. He said: “The support Seetec gave me was really great, it helped to keep me going, and to see I’m not on my own. So many people in the country have mental health problems, there are thousands of people with this kind of illness. There needs to be a change of approach in society, people need to accept it and realise it’s very common.”
Mental health issues are the biggest cause of sickness absence from work in the UK, which is why Mental Health Awareness Week this year focused on positive mental health in the workplace.
Seetec’s Mental Health Specialist Sebastian Bosca runs workshops in Ealing, Enfield, Barnet and Neasden to help those struggling with mental health issues to build self-esteem, and self confidence, as well as providing practical support on interview techniques and preparing to return to work.
He explained: “Many customers just need someone to sit down with them and listen to their story, to see what their individual issues are and help them find coping strategies to support the process of recovery.“
I teach them techniques to help them deal with depression and anxiety which include breathing and relaxation techniques, creating opportunities for them to recover. With a mental health issue the most important thing is to recover.“
I try to get customers to a place where they feel confident about themselves and feel ready to go to work and believe they have techniques to cope with stressful situations and conflict.”
Recent research on attitudes to mental illness revealed nearly half of employees don’t feel comfortable talking to employers about mental health problems, but Sebastian says he urges employees and Seetec customers to disclose their mental health problems, so their employer can help them.
He says the most important thing an employer can do is listen, so they understand the issue and how it affects the employee in the workplace. But he acknowledges that not all employers know how to make reasonable adjustments to help their employee to cope – such as giving additional short breaks or ensuring they are not overwhelmed by their workload.
Seetec was awarded the Investors in People (IIP) Good Practice award earlier this year, which recognises the impact of mental health issues in the workplace, and the organisation’s effectiveness in promoting staff wellbeing. This award highlights that, as well as supporting its customers and partners, Seetec ensures its own staff are supported by best practice.
Advice for employers about supporting employees with mental health problems is available here