The past week or so has been a big one for (often frustrating) discussions on mental health.

First was 24 year-old Labour MP Nadia Whittome – currently the youngest member in the House of Commons – announcing that she was taking time off to focus on recovering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Within hours of her making this statement, notorious far-right website Guido Fawkes published an opinion piece deriding the MP’s supposed lack of “life experience”.

“Parliament may be daunting,” they said, “though nothing akin to the trenches of the First World War.”

Ironically enough, the crudely written article demonstrated an understanding of PTSD based purely on movies. In reality, PTSD is a complex and severe condition, one that can arise from events as varied as being involved in a car crash, experiencing domestic violence or sexual assault, working in the emergency services, or, yes – serving in the Armed Forces.

Then on 31st May, Japanese tennis champion Naomi Osaka announced that she would be withdrawing from the French Open, citing press obligations for the tournament that had made her private struggle with depression and anxiety more difficult.

Sure enough, the 23 year old’s statement was met within hours with a reactionary response of its own – this time from Piers Morgan, who branded her “an arrogant spoiled brat” whose decision to step back was “frankly contemptible”.

Clearly, there’s a lot that could be said about the underlying assumptions and motivations behind both the Guido Fawkes and Piers Morgan pieces.

Each has a history of making inflammatory comments about women, and particularly women of colour that hold progressive values; Nadia Whittome, of course, is one of the UK’s most recognisable new socialist MPs, and Naomi Osaka is a vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement.

As someone who struggles with mental ill health myself, though, these events made me think more of our collective relationship to work.

Over the past decade or so, we’ve seen something of an evolution in the way mental illness is perceived and spoken of. We have 'Time to Talk' days now, and last month saw the twentieth annual Mental Health Awareness Week.


In theory, your diagnosis of depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or anxiety, are no longer marks against you. But in practice, and particularly when it comes to work, the picture is a little more fuzzy.

The UK Government’s 2017 Thriving at Work review found that people with mental health issues lose their jobs at a far higher rate than those with physical health conditions, and almost double the rate of those without any health condition.

Research also suggests that a significant percentage of people calling in sick with poor mental health will lie to their employers and blame a physical illness for their absence.

For anyone that has suffered from mental illness, I’m sure that last stat will ring true.

Our relationship with work means that we often feel guilty for taking a sick day in any case, but there’s a particular feeling of shame, unworthiness, when what’s stopping you from going in is your own mind.

After all, what may be needed when you’re struggling with these conditions is a walk in the sun, a visit to family – and what if you see someone? What if you don’t look ill?

Many bosses, though they themselves might have experienced similar conditions, and may have empathy as individuals, might find their compassion gets lost when weighed against the needs of their company and the demands of their role.

The statements made by Whittome and Osaka stood out for me because they were clear and frank instances of people asking for what they need to recover – rest, without shame.

Of course, as highly paid public figures, their experience with this situation vastly differs from that of the rest of us. After all, in many cases, money worries are often a significant aggravating factor in poor mental health. Underpaid, over-stressed gig economy workers don’t have the option to take time off if they become unwell.

But I do think this moment, hot on the heels of a lockdown and pandemic that’s left huge swathes of the population struggling in ways they might never before have experienced, is an opportunity for us all to reflect on what work is to us, and how much we should be expected to sacrifice for our jobs.

As US labour journalist Sarah Jaffe puts it: “Work won’t love you back.”

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