The academic year 2013 – 2014 began fairly well for me, and I feel I was relatively resolved to put the difficulties of the very end of the previous school year behind me. I was still struggling with depression, still on medication and seeing my therapist twice a week. Sometimes there can be clear triggers for particularly challenging periods of depression, and sometimes it just happens. Aside from the passage of time, my general dissatisfaction with the direction my life was taking, and the pressures of work, there was nothing in particular that had changed, nothing I could identify as the trigger for the downward spiral I had been on for most of that year. Nor was my life entirely dominated by depression. Even during my darkest periods, I have still seen friends, been to the theatre, travelled, and tried to make the most I possibly can of life in London, time and money permitting.
I am able to identify two clear events that had a significant impact on me that autumn, and which probably accelerated the downwards trajectory I was already on. Perhaps had I been on more of an even keel, I would have had the resilience to cope much better, but as it was, both contributed to my increasing sense of despair. In September, I unexpectedly learnt that the fiance of one of my dearest school friends had cancer. It was the first time that any of my contemporaries had come face to face with the disease, and my sense of the injustice of the situation was exacerbated by what my friend and her partner had already experienced in their family life. I was overwhelmed by sadness at what he was going through, and by concern for both him, and for my friend and the rest of her family. I know that my other school friends felt very similarly, and I would not want in any way to suggest that the situation affected me any more than it did any of them. However, in my frame of mind at the time, I found it very hard news to process.
A few weeks later, one of my dear friends whom I also line managed since she was Head of Languages at my school, told me that she had breast cancer, and would shortly be off work to begin treatment. Of course, I found this news really shocking and upsetting, particularly since for a period of time I was the only one of her work colleagues that she had told. I felt really touched that she had wanted to tell me, really worried about how she would cope with the treatment, and also felt so much emotion about the air of calm and resolve with which she was handling her situation. When she was signed off a few weeks later, I stepped in to line manage the Languages Faculty (she was Head of Faculty, and line managed a team of Heads of Department. I had held the role before my promotion to Deputy Head.) This effectively meant that I was attempting to do the essential parts of her job, while at the same time continuing to do my own. I made this decision for a number of reasons, some of which have only become clear with the passage of time and through discussion with Alexis. I felt a huge sense of loyalty to the school and to the students, and wanted to ensure that the Languages Faculty continued to function as efficiently as possible. I also felt that I could support her in some way by ensuring that things didn’t fall apart in her absence. Finally, this was a situation in which I felt a lack of control. I find that very difficult, and have a tendency to want to assume responsibility for solving problems and easing difficult situations and relationships, even when they are not of my own making. I have realised that by taking over the running of the faculty, and supporting staff and students, I was seeking to impose a sense of control on a situation that I found incredibly challenging on an emotional and also practical level. And speaking of practicalities, however much I was perhaps more willing that I should have been to assume additional responsibilities, there was no discussion within my school or between me and the Headteacher to decide what should be put in place to cover my colleague’s absence. He tacitly acknowledged that there was no one in the Faculty who could or would step up to take the role on, but offered no further opportunities for discussion, or any other solutions.
Within about a month of my colleague being signed off, I was finding the dual responsibility very challenging. I was off ill on my birthday at the start of December, and then was signed off a week later for the remainder of the term. When I went back to work in January, mindful of how difficult it had been for the school to managed a return to work with reduced responsibilities, my doctor instead asked for a two-week phased return of half days. This meant that I went home at lunchtime each day. Physically not being in the school definitely helped reduce the pressure I felt on returning to work, and gave me more time and space to continue to focus on feeling more positive and more able to cope. To be entirely fair to the Headteacher, he did try to discuss ways in which the school could support me in our weekly meeting on my return to work. I raised my concerns about the amount of work I had had to take on, and the fact that I felt that no one else had been asked to step up to assume greater responsibility in my colleague’s absence. He asked me about upcoming school trips I was scheduled to accompany. He said he was concerned that I might feel more stressed being out of school for the duration of the trips – though only one was in term time – and also raised the question of whether I would be a risk to myself or to other people. He didn’t really offer any solutions in terms of how the school might support me, but at least he was trying to engage in a productive discussion.
Despite the support of a phased return, I was still struggling with depression and suicidal ideation and my GP referred me to my nearest mental health team. I initially undertook a telephone assessment with a nurse, who then organised an appointment with a psychiatrist a week or so later, and called me regularly in the meantime, as far as I could tell to check that I hadn’t killed myself before I could attend the clinic. Going to the clinic for the first time – around a week after I returned to full-time hours at work – was certainly very challenging. Over time I have become less and less concerned about the stigma associated with mental health problems and have increasingly sought to be open about my mental health. I have long since stopped worrying about whether I sit on a chair or lie on a couch at my therapist’s, about how frequently I need to see her, and about the variations in my prescription dose of antidepressants. Even at the time of my visit to the clinic, I had cast off most of these concerns. However, a first visit to a mental health clinic is a big step. It is the unknown, and there are various visual clues that reinforce the fact that this is something out of the ordinary. All of the doors had key pads, meaning that you were unable to leave the waiting room or indeed go anywhere in the building without being accompanied by a medical professional. There was a notice outside advising visitors what to do in case of a mental health emergency if the clinic was closed, and the waiting room was full of posters and literature advertising services for people whose social and mental health needs were clearly more pressing and life-threatening than mine. Actually, when I finally saw the psychiatrist, that was the least disorienting aspect of the whole experience. I am not sure whether I expected him to interrogate me at length about my mental health, to offer me advice on how best to manage it, or express concern at my frequent suicidal thoughts. In the event, he was a practical but seemingly – from the state of his office – very disorganised man who had a brief chat with me and then prescribed some new antidepressants and a follow-up appointment in a few weeks.
The appointment was a very unsettling one, and seemed to represent a step change in the way in which my depression needed to be managed, suggesting that my mental health was deteriorating. I was unable to shake the effect that it had on me, and I was absent from work the following day, unable to process and move on from the feelings it had aroused. On my return to work, I had a meeting with the Headteacher. I don’t remember exactly what we discussed, but the sad face emoji I have drawn in my diary suggests it was not a particularly positive conversation… What I do remember is that the next day I received a letter from him, inviting me to an informal review meeting in line with the school’s sickness management policy and procedure. I reproduce the contents of the letter below:
Re: Sickness Management Policy and Procedure: Invitation to informal review meeting.
I would like to invite you to a meeting to discuss my concerns in respect of your health and recent absence from work since 11 December 2013 as a result of depression, your subsequent return to work on 6 January 2014 and then my agreement, on the advice of your GP, to a two-week period of phased working of half days only, up to 17 January 2014.
As we discussed at my meeting with you on 29 January 2014, whilst I appreciate your attempts to be in work, I am concerned about your welfare and that following one week of full-time working you then reported feeling unfit for work again and were absent on Tuesday 28 January 2014. I have encouraged you to seek further advice from your GP.
As you are already aware you are scheduled to attend an Occupational Heath review on Thursday 6 February 2014 and I anticipate receipt of their report early the following week so I would like to invite you to a further meeting when we may review the circumstances in respect of your levels of absence to date, including any medical advice received, and to positively and constructively discuss options to improve your future attendance.
The meting with take place on Thursday 13 February at 10.20am in my office and will be held in accordance with the school’s Sickness Management Policy and Procedure, a copy of which I enclose for your reference.
I will be conducting the meeting and will be accompanied by /// from /// [the school’s personnel company]. // [the Head’s PA] will be present to take notes.
You may, if you wish, be accompanied at the meeting by a trade union representative or a work colleague.
I would like to stress that this is neither a disciplinary matter nor an attempt to determine whether your absence or health concerns are legitimate.
The meeting will allow us to discuss the standards of attendance expected from you in your role, including the impact that your absence has had on service delivery and colleagues, and to explore whether there are any further adjustments that can be made to your role which may assist in facilitating your sustained attendance at work.
The intended outcome of the meeting is that we will agree an action plan that will clearly identify:
The improvements necessary to achieve the expected standards of attendance.
The timescale for improvement
Additional support to be provided
Any temporary or permanent work adjustments
The review period and
How attendance will be monitored.
I would be grateful if you could please confirm that you will be able to attend the meeting and the name of any person accompanying you to the meeting at least two days prior.
If you have any questions or concerns please do not hesitate to contact me.
It is quite hard for me entirely objectively to evaluate the exact extent to which this letter and the procedure it put in place was at variance with the school’s sickness management procedure. What I do know is that the receipt of this letter caused me a great deal of distress. Even setting aside the fact that the procedure followed was not, in a number of ways, the one set out in the policy, there was no verbal communication in advance of it landing in my pigeonhole. I had met with the headteacher the previous day; he could easily have advised me that we would have a meeting to discuss ways in which the school could support me, and ways in which I could work to improve my attendance He chose not to do this and the letter arrived out of the blue.
It was entirely appropriate for the Headteacher to request a meeting with me to discuss my absences. The school’s policy stated that an informal attendance review meeting could be triggered in the case of a total of 11 days absence in a rolling 12 month period. After my two weeks’ absence prior to Christmas, I was well over this. The Head also stated in the letter – though I subsequently discovered that it was not written by him – that while he appreciated my attempts to be in work, he was concerned about my welfare. That may well have been true – or at least, was the official position the Head needed to take – but it didn’t feel it at the time. In fact, there were a number of reasons for which I considered that the policy was not being followed correctly, and that I was being treated differently, whether because I was a Deputy Head in the school or because I had a mental illness rather than a physical one (or a combination of both.) Firstly, the way in which the letter was delivered, seemingly with little regard as to the effect it might have. I have delivered a number of similar letters myself, and have always sought to do so in person. Secondly, the people who would be present at the meeting. According to the school’s policy, the first stage in addressing staff absence should be an informal Attendance Review Meeting. The policy stated ‘normally [personnel company] or trade union representatives need not be involved at this stage, but this can be varied by mutual agreement. Not only was the presence of the representative of the personnel company presented as a fait accompli, but the letter also advised me that the Head’s PA would take notes. There was no prior discussion regarding the attendance of either person. A small point perhaps, but this and other issues combined to cause me a great deal of distress and to make me feel personally and professionally vulnerable at an already very difficult time. In the event, the representative of the personnel company was a reassuring and proactive presence in the final meeting, and played a key role in highlighting the school’s responsibilities towards me. As far as the Head’s PA was concerned, we got on well, and I had (and have) absolutely no doubts as to her professionalism and awareness of the need for confidentiality. However, the meeting was about very personal issues, and I felt strongly that I should have been asked whether I was happy for her to be there. I raised this as a concern and asked for the school’s personnel manager to be there instead.
Aside from these issues, the policy advised that the meeting was “an opportunity for the employee to advise the manager if there is an underlying medical problem.” The school already knew what my medical problem was. The policy also made reference to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995: “Headteachers should be alert to the possibility that sickness absence may amount to a disability under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.” It went on to state that in this instance special care should be taken and adjustments might need to be made. This is an area on which I remain unclear, and is another aspect of the management of my illness at the time that caused me a great deal of upset. There were other staff in my school who suffered from long-term, debilitating physical illnesses, such as colitis or chronic arthritis. I was aware that they had not been asked to attend similar meetings. When I subsequently met with staff suffering from these sorts of conditions as their manager, it was an informal meeting, in line with the policy’s guidance: we would meet face to face following advance notice of the meeting, discuss the condition and ways in which the school could support, make any appropriate adjustments and a referral to Occupational Health if necessary, follow-up with a letter and then review after three months. Following that three-month review, if the person’s attendance had not improved, he or she might then be invited to a formal review meeting. A further and serious deterioration in a member of staff’s attendance could then lead three months later to a Contractual Review meeting, at which the feasibility of the person’s continued employment might be considered, possibly leading to eventual dismissal. However, progression to a formal review meeting rarely happened with staff who suffered from a long-term condition which, while increasing their absences from work, did not prevent them from fulfilling their role.
While a condition relating to my mental rather than my physical health, my depression was a long-term and at times debilitating condition. I understand that had I sought to do so, I could have asked my GP to write me a letter confirming that she considered it a disability, which would have helped me gain protection under the Equality Act. I did not think to do this at the time. Instead, I continued to dwell on my perception that my mental health problems were being treated differently, and continued to experience a great deal of additional anxiety and distress as a result. The school’s policy stated that “following the attendance review meeting the employee should be allowed reasonable time to demonstrate an improvement in their attendance. As a general guidance this monitoring periods would normally be for a period of three months, although there may be occasions when a shorter/longer term monitoring period would be reasonable. ” As with a long-term condition such as chronic arthritis or colitis, there is no guarantee as far as time frames are concerned with depression. This statement left me with a clear and extremely worrying sense that I had three months to get better or my position in the school was at risk. Again, the lack of communication about the meeting and its intended outcomes before I received the letter, my perception that an informal review meeting was being escalated to a formal review, and my awareness of the way in which other long-term conditions were treated in the school all combined to make me feel incredibly anxious and vulnerable. I felt at the time and I think still feel now that actually my life would have been easier had I been signed off for six months. My GP was entirely willing to sign me off for an extended period of time, I would have been on full pay, and I would have gone back to work when my symptoms had become more manageable, which by the summer they had. I didn’t want not to be at work. I don’t know whether this was the right or the wrong decision – when you are in the grip of depression it is hard to think rationally, to weigh up the pros and cons. Being at work gave me periods of relief, a sense of purpose, and social interaction. I would be at home, thinking about when my suicide would cause the least inconvenience to the people who would have to deal with the fall out, or worrying about who would look after my cat, and then could go to work, teach a lesson and have a coffee with a colleague, and genuinely experience a moment of light and happiness. I do know that throughout this period work was probably not only the thing that kept me sane but also the thing that pushed me closest to the final edge.
The meeting took place two weeks later, two weeks which were among the hardest I have ever had to endure. Looking back at my diaries, I noted that at the end of one of our sessions Alexis told me not to do anything that would make her angry between then and our next meeting, by which she clearly meant – as I understood it at the time – that she would prefer me not to kill myself before she saw me again. I saw the Occupational Health doctor during that period too. In his report to the Headteacher, he made a number of points, the most salient of which I include below:
- She has suffered from depression over the last four years, with little effect on attendance in that time. She has benefited from regular sessions with her therapist, increased in 2013 to twice weekly.
- Her condition is stable but chronic. She continues much the same week by week. She manages all normal day-to-day activities, but continues with some symptoms of her condition especially irregular sleep.
- She continues fit for her own work….
I have the following general comments and suggestions:
- I have reviewed work related factors in her case. There is a temporary increase in workload due to covering colleague absence.
- She has taken appropriate medication, recently increased, and has enhanced her talking treatments, and will be engaged with the specialist in March.
- Her brief absence before Christmas and phased return in the New Year have helped her, and her condition has improved, and there is a good prospect of attending work regularly.
- She would appreciate general stress adjustments of adequate support and supervision, appropriate workload and clear duties and responsibilities.
The head had asked specific questions about the impact of my depression on my ability to fulfil my role, and the doctor made various observations including the following:
- Her range of duties is not a work-related factor for her, however she will appreciate support and development as required.
- Her underlying medical disorder is treated appropriately, seems to be under control, and she should be able to attend work regularly, with suggestions outlined above.
- The two sessions of counselling are part of her treatment and in her case are vital to her management strategy, at least for the next 6 months. She will try to arrange the timing to minimise impact on working hours.
I took my dear, dear friend Kate to the meeting with me for support. She was incredibly kind, understanding and supportive both in the run-up to and also during the meeting, and I will always be grateful for this. In fact, Kate, the personnel manager who was writing the minutes and the representative from the personnel management company were all extremely kind and helpful in the meeting, and in many ways it turned out to be a positive experience, albeit an incredibly difficult one. Whether or not the Head was kind, I really couldn’t say. Most of the acknowledgement of the issues I raised, and most of the suggestions as to how to move forward came from the personnel representative. Obviously the Head was calm and polite, in a way in which he often was not in meetings before and after this one, not least I suppose because other people were there. In any case, so much had gone before the letter and the meeting that I found it hard to accept anything positive from him, either then or later. Addressing some of the issues raised by Occupational Health, I mentioned that I had found it really helpful that S., the previous Head, had always recognised the challenges of the job for the leadership team and had always taken the time to ask how we were. However, I went on to make the point that in the situation in which I now found myself I did not want to be asked about or to discuss my emotional and mental state with the Head, since any enquiry on his part simply felt like an additional pressure.
My anxiety prior to the meeting – and also my general, ongoing reliance on the written word – meant that I had prepared copious notes prior to the meeting. By the time it came around, I had pretty much memorised the contents of the letter I had been sent, and constantly re-visited those parts of it that I found most upsetting or unjustified. The notes covered the things that I felt it was important that I should have the opportunity to express, and I was given the opportunity at the start of the meeting to raise my concerns and to respond to the fact that the meeting had been called. When I look back now at those notes, I feel very emotional. I no longer work at the school, and am no longer affected by my anger at how I was treated, not least because the meeting did lead to short-term positive change, albeit not instigated by the Headteacher. I do feel very sad at how vulnerable, scared and unvalued the experience made me feel and I do feel angry, given my ongoing conviction that procedures were not applied in the way they would have been had I been suffering from a physical rather than a mental illness. As I said in the first of the posts about the management of my mental health, my experience was just my experience. But I know other people who have been through equally if not more challenging experiences when they have been experiencing periods of mental ill-health, both in the teaching profession and elsewhere. Policies and procedures are of little use if they are not followed, or if they are supplanted by a manager’s personal view of mental illness, or if there is no recourse for those who feel that their mental wellbeing has not been managed or supported correctly. Clear structures but also clear systems of accountability need to be put in place to support individuals and groups within the workplace. I continue to hold out hope that the recommendations made in the Thriving at Work report may still be implemented.
Returning to my own experience, as I have said, the meeting did lead to some positive outcomes for me, which helped me in terms of managing my mental health. I wanted to emphasise that while my depression was not caused by my job, it could at times be an exacerbating factor. It could be a source of stress – not just for me, but for members of the Leadership Team and a whole range of staff. The meeting gave me the opportunity to highlight recent circumstances that had made my working life especially difficult. In particular, I highlighted the lack of support around my colleague’s absence. There had been no proactive discussion around how to manage her workload. I was finding the situation personally difficult due to the illness of a close friend, and it was also incredibly challenging on a professional level, given the ongoing stress and anxiety in the Languages Faculty. The representative from the personnel company was very clear with the Head; in the case of staff absence, adjustments needed to be made, to ensure that the member of staff’s work could be covered in a manageable way. As a result of the meeting, certain responsibilities were removed from me in other areas, and other members of staff were given enhanced roles and salaries, to support me and the Faculty. These adjustments made my workload more reasonable, and certainly contributed to my recovery. While according to the school’s policies the personnel representative should only have been in attendance with my prior agreement – which given my anxiety about the meeting I would probably not have given – her presence in the meeting, her direct guidance to the Headteacher, and her kindness all helped me a great deal. Arguably – and this was the point she made – the Headteacher should have recognised the need for and then made these adjustments at a far earlier stage. His failure to do so pointed not only to lack of concern for my professional and personal wellbeing and for that of the staff I was managing, but to broader issues relating to the management of staff illness and absence.
I addressed various other issues arising from the letter that I had been sent and how it related to the management of my condition. In particular, the apparent divergence from the procedures set out in the policy, which had made me feel incredibly anxious and also that there was a wider motivation underlying the way the meeting had been organised – namely, to put an agreement and timeframes in place that would ultimately lead to my dismissal, or to put me under such significant pressure that I would choose to walk away from my job. Even now, looking back to that time, it hard for me to work out the extent to which this anxiety was due to my paranoia and depression. As I have mentioned, I was doing well in my job and received extremely positive feedback from the governors, external organisations, the Headteacher and those that I line managed. No significant concerns had ever been raised about my professional capabilities. It seems illogical and unlikely that the school would have wanted to get rid of me, under normal circumstances.
What was clear to me however was that the Head showed very little awareness of issues relating to mental illness – both in relation to me and also to a number of other members of staff during my time at the school – showed little willingness to learn, and also that he found managing me, and my condition, very difficult. I am sympathetic about the challenges of working with someone who is struggling with their mental health. My condition was unpredictable in ways that perhaps a broken leg or recovery from an operation might not have been. While the long-term illnesses of other members of staff that I have mentioned – colitis, or chronic arthritis for example – might provide a more appropriate analogy, those were illnesses whose effects were visible in ways that the effects of my depression often were not. In any case, my sympathy is limited by the Head’s lack of personal or professional engagement with my workload or condition. His mismanagement of my workload that year, plus the way in which the meeting was arranged, directly contributed to my anxiety and therefore to my fears about a possible agenda behind it.
I have been very lucky to work with people who are instinctively supportive and understanding. I have also worked with people who have undertaken further to develop the leadership, managerial and interpersonal skills that they require in their role. Particularly when one takes on a leadership role, I feel a degree of honest, critical self-reflection is essential. Managing people is never straightforward, even without the added complications of the impact of people’s health or events in their personal lives.
Despite my anxieties and the distress I had been feeling in the run-up to the meeting, I was angry enough at the way in which I felt the school’s policy had been misapplied to be determined to address this issue. I said that ‘according to the school’s policy the informal review meeting is not usually attended by someone from [personnel management company.] The policy states that this can be varied by mutual agreement. The letter advised me that [representative] would be attending, and I did not feel that I would say that I did not want her to be there. Her attendance, alongside the fact that the meeting was originally going to be minuted by [Head’s PA], has caused me significant anxiety. As has the fact that I was sent a formal letter, since this is not standard procedure for an informal attendance meeting. All of this combines me to give me the impression that we have moved to the formal stage of the policy without first having had an informal meeting. I also feel anxious as when I was last off for an extended period of time due to depression, for three weeks in 2011, this kind of meeting was not held on my return. [This had been under the previous Headteacher, S.] Therefore I feel that my absence in itself is not the sole reason for this meeting, since the procedure that is being followed is different.’
I don’t remember precisely what was said in response to this, in terms of the application of the school’s sickness management policy and procedure. I then went on to raise other points around my attendance, and the wording of the letter. Once I had finished, the personnel representative apologised for the way in which the standard wording of the letter – for which she was responsible – had aggravated my anxiety, addressed the issue of my workload and sought to reassure me that the school was seeking an outcome that was positive for all parties. Following this meeting, there was only a very cursory review meeting after three months [again, not in line with the school’s policy], and I generally knuckled down and got on with my job as best I could. By the following September, I was feeling significantly better, and my colleague had returned to work following her treatment for cancer.
I think it is useful to reproduce here some of the other points I prepared for the meeting, if only to illustrate the impact that it had on me. Again, to reiterate, I do not feel – nor did I feel at the time – that a meeting should not have taken place. I do feel that the meeting took place at the wrong stage in the school’s sickness management policy, and that the communication around it was mismanaged.
‘The letter refers your agreement, on the advice of [my] GP, to a two-week period of phased working of half days only. This phased return was in fact a stipulation of my certification for a return to work. When I returned to work after my last period of absence, the doctor indicated that I should be given reduced responsibilities. This was not organised effectively and provided me with very little material benefit when I first returned to work. It was for this reason that the GP indicated that I should work half days in the first instance. I now feel that this has counted against me.
My attendance overall is very good. Even allowing for the recent absence of 10 days, since September 2010 I have been absent for a total of 40.33 days. This includes 14 days signed off in May 2011 and 8 days in December 2013, a total of 22 days. This leaves only 18 days of absence in three school years and one term, a period during which I have been suffering from depression. The letter states that ‘this meeting will allow us to discuss the standards of attendance expected from [me] in my role.’ I am fully aware of the standards of attendance expected in my role and want to achieve them. I could have stayed at home after Christmas. My doctor let me decide where the best place for me would be. There are advantages and disadvantages to being at home and being at work. I assumed that it would be preferable for me to be in school as much as possible, but to stay at home if I have a particularly bad day. I assumed that the school would prefer me to be here. I now feel that I am being penalised for this assumption, and that this meeting would not have happened at this stage had I been signed off for longer.
I have a long-term condition and I am living with it and seeking treatment for it. I cannot stay at home until I am better for two main reasons: firstly since that would probably not help me feel any better, and secondly because I don’t know when that will be.
The letter and the policy state – if this is in fact a formal review meeting, which is what it appears to me to be – that a period of time will be set within which I need to improve my attendance. I am concerned that if I had a physical condition such as colitis such a timeframe would not be put in place. The framework within which this meeting is taking place states that I need to be less depressed in the next three months. The fact that this meeting is taking place within that framework has caused me a huge amount of anxiety and has been counterproductive for my health. I feel incredibly anxious about having a bad day, not because I don’t want to have a bad day but because I now feel extremely worried about having to take a day off work. I feel I have to get better because otherwise, ultimately, my job is at risk. I want to get better because I would prefer not to be depressed and not to have the thoughts and feelings that I regularly have, not because I feel there is pressure from my workplace to do so.
The letter states that ‘the meeting will allow us to discuss… the impact that your absence has had on service delivery and colleagues.’ I am not sure what is meant by service delivery. In terms of my colleagues, of course I have been off work. I am keenly aware that this has had an impact on other people. However, other people have also had extended periods of absence from work, albeit for very different and in some cases very positive reasons [the latter related to frequent maternity leave absences in the Languages Faculty, which in the Italian department in particular had often led to others of us picking up additional classes or taking on additional roles.] Equally, [the Head of Faculty] has of course been off work for an extended period of time. One thing that I have found particularly stressful is the fact that the impact of this on me and my staff does not seem to have been taken into consideration.
If service delivery relates to my capacity to fulfil my role, I also feel that I am very effective in my role. Even allowing for my absences, the school is getting a huge amount out of me. If there are any issues with underperformance, I would like those to be raised explicitly so that I know what they are and so that I can ask for support to make improvements.
I am aware that in my current state of mind I am prone to paranoia and negative thinking. I do understand on one level that you are trying to support me and I also fully appreciate that mental health issues are hard to understand and also more complex to manage – I feel that myself as someone who is suffering from them. On the other hand, the way in which the sickness management policy is being applied has made me feel very vulnerable. I feel that trying to identify the extent to which work is a factor in my illness is on one hand almost an attempt to cover the school, and on the other a possible way of proving that I can no longer do my job.’
Typing up these notes, I have wondered how the feelings they express will be received. Some of you may feel that it is understandable that I felt the way I did, given the way my condition and my absences were managed. Others may feel that the school was doing its best in a very difficult situation and attempting to apply the school’s policy as best it could to an unusual situation – unusual in the sense that it involved mental rather than physical health, and a member of the school’s Leadership Team. I personally continue to find it hard to evaluate what happened, or to separate it from issues that arose both before and after that time. Writing this blog has nonetheless provided me with a valuable opportunity for reflection and to organise my thoughts.
I have also wondered about my motivation in providing so much detail about that period of time and the meeting itself. I genuinely feel that my overriding motivation in writing all five of these posts [last one to come, it’s very short I promise you!] has been my determination to both address and illustrate the need for managers to follow clear procedures when managing staff who are suffering from poor mental health, and the need for protection and support for those employees when procedures are not followed. I have of course also had to consider whether an additional motivation was the opportunity to settle old scores. I don’t believe this to be the case, though of course you may disagree with me. The people who read this blog and who can identify the players in this story are limited in number, and are probably aware of much of the detail already. For others who read these posts, I hope that I have managed to communicate something around my broader aims. Since 2014, I have had occasion to line manage a number of people who have been experiencing mental health problems, and I have always sought to be as understanding as possible, and to anticipate and allay their fears. I have tried to identify opportunities to make adjustments that might enable them to continue in their role, but have also, at times, encouraged them to consider whether a period of absence from work might be the best thing for their long-term health – thought of course the final decision must always be their own. I hope that I can continue to support the people I work with in the way in which they have supported me, and in which I hope they would continue to support me in more challenging circumstances, should the need arise.