When does a mental illness become a disability?

In this article we unpack the key highlights from a recent workshop with our Associate Disability and Workplace Assessment Specialist, Ramin Salehi.

Ramin, who has conducted over 10,000 workplace assessments discussed When mental illness becomes a disability and how you can support managers and employees to reduce presenteeism and absenteeism through ill mental health.

When does a mental illness become a disability?

It’s not an exact science.

I think one of the key things, particularly for a manager, is that it’s important that we know our colleagues and invest time in them to understand them and their needs.

Understanding the person and their normal way of going about things. For example, if we start to see changes in their normal behaviour patterns such as changes in appearance, turning their camera off, drops in performance and buy-in.

All of these are indicators.

We will all have had those drops in periods of our life and maybe they’ll be for a day, maybe they’d be for a week.

But typically speaking, if we see these sustained over a couple of weeks, that then starts to be the indicator that an individual needs intervention and support. The key is changes in ordinary behaviour.

So, when we see a disability becoming something that is a mental health condition, that then starts to be an issue when we start to see the changes in normal behaviour.

This can be a huge challenge for managers who don’t have the knowledge, skills and the confidence to spot the signs of ill mental health and start the conversation with their colleague.

To do this, managers need a basic understanding of disability, of mental health conditions and need to understand the language and their responsibility as a people leader.

Too often though, we’re just too busy to do these important things. And it’s just another thing on our to do list where actually this is vital and feeds into team dynamics, productivity and longevity.

Managers having that toolkit available to them is crucial in how we engage in that conversation. Using open questions, meeting your point of need, listening non-judgementally.

All of these can be learnt.

Without the toolkit, the fear element can have a very loud voice and often causes managers to shut down, ignore, avoid and obfuscate.

The results of having access to the toolkit means when a manager presses the nuclear button for an assessment and then the process with the assessor and the colleague, increases their confidence.

And then suddenly, like popcorn, you see them starting to refer other people because they’ve seen it. They understand the benefit. It’s clear.

What’s the definition of a disability?

If you ask groups of people to define a disability, they will each come up with something slightly different.

So, our bedrock for that definition is always looking at the Equality Act 2010.

We think of the word disability. We maybe think of a wheelchair. We think of someone with a visual impairment. Maybe we tend not to think of that disability being a mental health condition.

There are elements within this which are the pillars for understanding what a disability is. One these is long term impact. We’re talking about or 12 months.

This long-term impact upon our ability to do normal things in our lives. Things like self-care, things like walking out of the house, going to the shop, interacting with people.

Is it right that someone doesn’t need to have a diagnosis to access support?

One of the common blocks we put on ourselves in the process is we think we need a diagnosis to get help.

It can be whatever they’re experiencing that has a disabling impact over the long term.

There are some areas where that is needed, but overall, this shouldn’t be a barrier to accessing support and a workplace assessment.

What is in the toolkit?

I wouldn’t encourage you to look externally. Initially, I would encourage you to start asking the questions internally.

Start with asking your HR team or your line manager.

  • Is your organisation partnered with an occupational health provider?
  • What is our guidance on reasonable adjustments?
  • How far can we go before we need a workplace assessment?
  • Does your employer provide manager training such as MHFA or Genesis Manager or Genesis Teams?

Training such as Genesis is a great place to start to build that knowledge and confidence. Not just as a line manager but across teams and the entire organisation and for the long-term.

Externally, there are things such as Access to Work which can provide significant funding towards what an individual needs and their adaptions. Or a workplace assessment which is much more focussed, but the onus will be on the employer to provide what flows out of that assessment.

What affects can an organisational culture have?

In my experience it can be a liberating or a limiting factor. When the culture isn’t right or there is a lack of understanding it’s negative.

Too often, I assess people who don’t feel confident enough to accept all of the recommendations. This is generally down to the changes being evident to colleagues, and not being seen as disabled or having any special needs.

This is culture imposing on the life changing adjustments that we could make for that person.

Again, this is where approaches like Genesis can make a massive difference. Just getting everyone speaking the same language and learning in the same way can have huge impacts on workplace culture and dynamics.

When the culture is good, it’s rife with recommendations and adjustment.

You can look over the top of your computer and see someone who has an adjustment. The person next to you will have had adjustment. The process is streamlined, symptoms based and minimal information is needed to quickly make meaningful change. Often in less than a week.


If you would like to learn more about our quick start workplace mental health programme, please get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

Written by: Paul Sykes, Partnerships Director.

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