Mental Illness In The Workplace: Are You Being Served?

Support staff are often expected to respect the states of our more privileged and powerful co-workers, yet our own frailties, states of depression, or anxiety are seen as not deserving of care and accommodation.

by Davida Small on August 11th, 2014

I’m not sick but I’m not well

And I’m so hot ’cause I’m in Hell

I’m not sick but I’m not well

And it’s a sin to live so well

Harvey Danger, Flagpole Sitta (1997)

I was surprised how hard it’s been to write about how mental illness shows up and is treated in the workplace. It’s brought up a lot of pain about my own career and the experiences I’ve had working as an African American woman in various support roles at engineering and high tech firms. Mostly, I’ve been the “well-spoken” receptionist ( i.e, I can sound white on the phone, but be black in person to make folks feel progressive), the administrative assistant, or the vague “coordinator.” These are the types of positions that have made me a direct witness to how mental illness – and the stigma around it – shows up and plays out unfairly in the workplace.

Many of us have known a co-worker who’s left the office at a certain time each week to attend to a “personal matter” or another. If this was suspected to be for a therapy session, it was sometimes discussed in hushed tones. This attests to the shame surrounding mental illness in the tech workplace. The pressure to be “professional” at all times, to stick to prescribed roles, or risk being underutilized or even unemployed, is extremely stressful for everyone. But if you are in a support role dealing with anxiety or depression, you may not be able to take off for therapy, or have adequate income or mental health coverage to do it. It can feel almost impossible to thrive in your job. The unbalanced medical treatment and double standards about mental illness are further hurdles to overcome.

Perhaps to disassociate themselves from the stigmatized image of the schizophrenic on the street, the privileged may describe their own mental illness as “differently-abled” instead of “crazy.” As a result, what was once considered “crazy” or weird yesterday is more readily viewed today with more compassion, if not yet full understanding. I suppose this is progress.

Unless, of course, you are poor or lack status in the pecking order at work. Support staff are often expected to respect the states of our more privileged and powerful co-workers, yet our own frailties, states of depression, or anxiety, are seen as more pedestrian and taken for granted as commonplace, not deserving of care and accommodation; it just comes with a hard life.

A graphic image showing a three-dimensional nose against a flat, solid background.

Image by the author.

We are also asked to take on the burden of caregiving and cleaning up after higher-level staff in different situations. Once, I spent two days cleaning and organizing an apparently depressed network engineer’s office while he was away “at a conference.” I worked in an entirely different department and he had a male intern who conveniently had another project to do. Hoarding was evident everywhere: confidential papers and outdated materials were stacked in piles all over the room. A sugary drink was thick near the keyboard. I even found porn (a photocopied cartoon featuring a barely clad black prostitute performing oral sex on a white man, which I took kinda hard, since I’m a woman and black, and I liked this person). There were dirty socks here and there (which I was asked to pile up and take to a nearby laundry and pick up later), old takeout food, etc. But I was a good team player and did the job. I got an appreciative thank you when he returned, looking refreshed. I didn’t get a bonus and this helped my career in no way. But it would have hurt me if I had said no, as I have done before and have been ostracized as a result.

While simultaneously expected to be their caregivers, support staff are also expected to bear the brunt of the hostility many engineers, software developers and executives exhibit toward us, like the dog that gets kicked at home. Those who are more privileged in the workplace and in society are often given a pass after acting out “inappropriately,” outrageously, or even cruelly to others. In contrast, support staff, especially those of color, or those not acculturated to act by the dominant group’s standards, often get the blunt end of the stick. They may not get promoted, or may even lose their jobs if they follow the temptation to raise their voices, or even vaguely mimic the condescending and arrogant treatment regularly received.

The rules keep changing depending who is acting out. What is a creative blow-out for one might be “acting ghetto” for another. Privileged people are less likely to be labeled “difficult” or “crazy,” and are more able to access understanding and compassion, while mental illness is mislabeled or misapplied to less privileged people in the workplace, often based on the different expectations we have of them. The stigma of mental illness is used as a weapon against support staff. A CEO may make a sneering remark to a receptionist, or raise his voice in censure if a call is misdirected, but this is not considered to be an act of mental illness. Yet when a support team member uses initiative, it is unfairly assumed you must be “crazy” to step out of your class that way; there is always the danger of being accused of insubordination and not going along with the group. Decisions are therefore made extra hard, but asking too many questions is scorned.

Different Treatment

Once, it was openly discussed in an architectural/engineering firm where I worked that one of the engineers would be taking one day off a week for personal reasons. Given that he had recently been involved in a public altercation with a client in a restaurant, I was surprised he would even be staying with the firm, since the client had next rejected our proposal. Later he openly admitted he was seeing a therapist, a courageous thing to do, and a relief for him, I hope.

Though I liked him, and sympathized with his experience with that client, I secretly felt envious (he received a big bonus anyway and got paid time off). I remembered being reprimanded myself for being “overly familiar” with one of our long-term clients. I’m naturally quite friendly, but I had been written up for it, told I had to work on being more intuitive. Though I had never raised my voice with that client, apparently I had seemed awkward enough to make him feel “uncomfortable.” All I had done was make a corny comment about how I embraced being called a hippy, which seemed fine to me, given we had been discussing our favorite foods.

At the very least, he was dealing with his own discomfort about race. Racism is an illness we all deal with in my opinion. Because the client did not know where to put me in his mind, I was seen as being uppity and he became upset enough to complain about me. I was too out of context for him, still too much in a servant’s role to be seen as his equal and joke with him freely. Comparing this situation to the one about the engineer who ranted against a potential client may seem like comparing apples and oranges, but I mention it because it demonstrates how differently people are valued in the workplace, and how some have to walk on rice paper more than others with higher status.

Far from being able to expect help and special accommodations for mental illness, support staff is not only held to higher standards of behavior but are also stigmatized when they fall short. On top of that, they do not receive automatic forgiveness and acceptance higher-ups might lavish on their friends who inhabit their cultural comfort zones.

This unfair treatment and the sense support staff can have of not being seen or appreciated for their efforts and for making problems “miraculously” disappear, can aggravate things like anxiety and depression even further. For example, it’s not uncommon for support staff to be verbally abused and yelled at by the superstar of the company, who is upset with staff for one reason or another: the overnight messenger didn’t arrive in time, or something in that vein. The upset can be entirely valid, but the accusatory, bullying behavior can be quite scary from the receiving end. Yet this stuff is often dismissed as “Oh, that’s just how she is. She’s under a lot of stress and has been working for two days straight. Let her let off a little steam.” This is not fair and actually causes mental stress for the support worker, who also goes home to worry all night about going to work the next day.

Normally, it’s a man who engages in these kind of shenanigans, but I use this example of a woman because behind her back, she might also be called “crazy,” hormonal or menopausal, whether actually diagnosed or not. But, if she’s in power, she may still get a pass (or be taken aside to be reprimanded softly instead of being humiliated in front of other staff, as support staff often are).

Towards Change

A photo of sketches on slightly crumpled notebook paper. At the bottom, it shows an image of an eye within a circle, on top of which is a crown. At the top, a circle with two lines at a crossroads within it is adorned with textured wings and a crown. Sketches on the other side of the paer are dimly visible through the page.

Image by the author.

I do feel hopeful that things are changing for the better as we become more aware of the effect of such things as bullying and cultural misunderstandings in the workplace. There is even a website that provides speakers and mentoring services to overworked, overwrought tech workers who are ready to share their stories and remove the stigma of mental illness. The developers there have harrowing stories to tell. I feel encouraged by this, since most of them are white men, and the healing process has to come from them as well.

I also look forward to the day when certain mental illnesses (i.e., ADHD) are not valued above others, or falsely seen as innocuous and worthy of jokes. We have all probably heard the insensitive comments about having OCD, to prove how organized one is, or Asperger’s, to hint at being a bit tactless, but having a super high IQ. These are misunderstandings about very real conditions.

I also look forward to us all having the courage to confront bullying, passive-aggression, yelling, and a host of other dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors in the workplace. I hope we can look behind them as well to see the classism, racism, and sexism fueling the “crazy” in all of us. Mental illness is a problem of chemistry and thought that wreaks havoc on all relationships, in all facets of life. And the stigma of mental illness is affected by racism, sexism and classism.

Once the idea of being different — either in class, race, gender, sexual preference, or the way our brains are wired — stops being seen as bad and a threat to the group identity, we may actually be able to make some progress and treat each other with the respect and love we all deserve. I believe we’re on the way.