Monday, 19 January 2015

Why am I not Employable?

It creeps up on me. It's a radiating paralysis. The day to day routines I have developed as part of my recovery go on, reinforcing a sense of progression, making me feel part of something... and yet. There are days when I am seized by unassailable anxiety, by a sense of foreboding, by fear that my recovery will result in having the financial rug pulled from under me. I am unable to scan job ads without triggering intensely negative thoughts and feelings about the prospects of any employer wanting to give me even the most menial of jobs.

I have never before encountered this feeling of being disposible, of not being any earthly use to anyone. My working life consisted of thirty plus years of different roles; from my first Saturday job in the local Baker's to my final role as a Probation Officer. In total between 1990 and 2012 I applied for ten posts. I always progressed to interview and was only unsuccessful in securing a post on four occasions. That is a good record - I think. I have gained qualifications and significant experience in Education, Communications and the Criminal Justice system.

The trouble with me is that, throughout my life, I have struggled with mental illness. All but my final employer were unaware of the extent of my struggles. At no point have I ever been warned over the quality of my work. If anything, as way of coping with my emotional storms, I have been a chronic over achiever. Hence the brick wall I hit every time I try to move forward in finding meaningful employment which allows me to be fulfilled, provide for myself financially, as well as maintaining management of my mental health.

Most agencies who are in place to help those with mental health issues back into work are limited in what they are able to offer me. Not all of those who suffer from mental illness have never worked. In fact any casual scan of social media discussions among the mental health community indicates that many people not only remain in employment, but are also employed in highly skilled and highly challenging careers. Without wanting to be crass I reckon I would be better qualified than most employment advisers in these agencies, particularly in my knowledge of the careers which are suited to my qualifications and experience. I don't have a problem getting interviews or even getting a job. What I need is advice and support about roles which can take account of the ways I need to manage my condition.

Most of all, the biggest hurdle I need to overcome is the suspicion in the back of a prospective employer's mind, that by employing me they risk harm to colleagues and those they may work with. My biggest challenge is in finding and maintaining consistency and stability in my moods. Ironically, steady employment is a key factor in helping me to maintain that stability.

I cannot battle mental health stigma in all its forms and fight my own corner in a competitive jobs market. Certainly not on my own. One of the biggest learning curves for me has been to accept the reality of an environment which denigrates the vulnerable and those who are perceived as 'weak'. All I can do is try to plead the case for an employer to take me on and trusting that I am applying for work at a time when I feel I am in control of my condition. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees that this will always be the case. I would point out though, that unpredictability applies to everyone. No employer can guarantee that their most healthy, go ahead, uncomplicated employee, will not succumb to a virus, an accident or some other physical or mental illness, rendering them unable to fulfil their role within the company. At least if I start to struggle with my condition, I am now skilled in recognising warning signs and taking action to prevent myself from slipping further into dysregulation. Am I really saying that I am the devil that it is better to know? Perhaps. At least the risks of employing me are knowable and therefore can be planned for.

The conclusion I have reached is that I am probably better to take on the risk of an employer by working for myself. It is sad that I don't feel there are any agencies who could help me beyond advice about CVs and interview techniques (been there done that, actually got the jobs!). It grieves me that employers find it easier to adapt buildings and other aspects of the physical environment for the physically disabled, than to engage in an intelligent discussion about the impact of the working environment and culture on those with mental health conditions.

We are caught between a rock and hard place. On the one hand I am constantly reminded by populist TV such as Benefits Street, that I am one of the drains on the nation's coffers. On the other hand, I am reminded of the fragility of my situation by employers who frankly would rather have a mediocre employee who is able to guarantee mediocrity 100% of the time, than the highly motivated and skilled 100% employee whose life could be disrupted 25% of the time. It takes investment of effort and resources to help me with the 25% of the time I may struggle - sadly few employers are prepared to do that for those with mental illness.

I think a lot of people perceive mental illness with suspicion because no one outside can see evidence of the illness, unless I am in absolute crisis. Do we need to wonder that self harm and suicidal ideation is so prevalent - dramatic it may be, but it gets more of a response than me describing my distress.

Here I sit, continuing with voluntary work in the hope that it will help me rebuild my confidence sufficiently to begin to apply for paid work again. I fear the consequences of having to work part-time, of needing to balance the reduction in benefits against work which pays the minimum wage. Above all, I am paralysed by the question, 'am I employable at all'?