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Challenging Stigma in the Workplace


This article was written and submitted by Victoria Hall of New Law Solicitors.

“…human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.” William James

Mind’s ‘Time to Talk’ Day first launched in 2014 and has sparked millions of conversations in schools, homes, workplaces, in the media and online about mental health discrimination.

It has taken me a long time to get here and this is the first time I have spoken about the fact that I suffer from anxiety. I am not going into any significant detail here – that is for another day.

Why have I not spoken about it before? Because I was worried about what people would think, the stigma attached to it and I was scared of what it meant. I thought people would think this capable, tough and resilient former military officer, now lawyer, was in fact vulnerable. I don’t hold those fears or beliefs now and I believe that the more that people talk about this the more awareness can be raised and fear of consequences removed.

People who face any kind of illness head-on are generally strong, determined people. That is a good thing and anyone putting aside the fear of what others think, in order to live their life to the best of their ability, should be applauded – I thought it about time that I did the same.

The overwhelming nature of anxiety is hard to explain to someone who has not experienced it but to say it is engulfing and frightening is an underestimate of the situation. The downside of our vast thinking ability as humans is that we are capable of flooding ourselves with emotions and concocting all sorts of threats, perceived or real. These negative internal images trigger fear responses and without an ability to rationalise them or block them out, we create for ourselves a state of living in constant high alert. That is exhausting both mentally and physically and can give rise to symptoms such as severe panic attacks. Often unhealthy coping mechanisms are used to try to switch off the fear but talking is a much better option!

There are many celebrities talking about mental health at the moment yet I feel there is still a distinct lack of professional men and women who feel able to do so and I would like to do my bit to break this trend. We are all different and we all have something to offer, honesty and openness being particularly important. I have been in conversations where anxiety is referred in a derogatory way, suffered by people who ‘just can’t cope with hard work’, who are ‘weak’. Often it has been attributed to women who are said to be ‘more emotional’ than men, despite suicide rates in the UK being higher in men than women!

Anxiety occurs occasionally for some people and can be an everyday experience for others. It is not pleasant and, unaddressed, can be debilitating and life destroying.

I am passionate about understanding what causes anxiety as well as why stigma exists in relation to this subject and others. Like many words, I seem to hear ‘stigma’ mentioned in certain contexts, like discrimination, but not others. In reality, there is stigma at play in many different situations, with the common ground being a negative association.

The way I see it, there are two forms of damage associated with stigma. There is the social impact, where people are prevented from offering their true self through fear of the badge they will be labelled with. Secondly, the internal emotional damage caused as a result of living in an environment where stigma is applied.

Much of the stigma we apply to others comes from unconscious memories we hold. We were not born being afraid of what others think of us and our actions nor were we born with the intention to apply such stigma to others – we have learnt that from our life experiences. We are the sum of nature and nurture, our DNA and life experiences. So how does stigma emerge?

Throughout our lives we fill ourselves up with data. From this data we formulate internal models in a picture library in the back of our heads. This has a massive influence on how we see the world and has the potential to be the root of our unconscious bias. Through our automatic response systems and instincts we very quickly form emotional responses based on these unconscious memories and this influences our behaviours. This is universal and it can’t be helped. We all hold our own unconscious bias (not always negative ones!). For example, we may hold a warm association to elderly lady who reminds us of our grandmother. We may also be wary of men who subconsciously remind us of our aggressive uncle.

So in order to challenge our automatic responses we need to slow down and let our thought processes catch up. Thoughts are slower than instincts and emotions – we have to give ourselves time.
Giving ourselves time in itself is a challenge in a society that gets faster and faster. It takes courage to slow down and to challenge your own beliefs, thoughts, actions and meaning. Changing instinctive behaviour involves self-awareness and honesty at a level, in my experience, most people either don’t understand or are unwilling to go to.

It is hard work and it can be uncomfortable, but it is necessary, in my view, for achieving more tolerant and stigma free societies.

It is easy to criticise, to find fault and to judge others. It is hard to try and develop yourself into a better, more self-aware and tolerant person day after day. To push aside thoughts and habits that have formed over many years and slowly turn them around. Nobody knows this better than those fighting the battle of stigmatisation.

The irony is that it is really hard to be genuinely self-aware with the objective of improving your impact in this world, yet those capable of doing it are often the ones labelled with some sort of stigma as they are the ones who have had to battle themselves! The people who have the courage to be themselves no matter what others think, the people who have to fight other people’s prejudices every time they summon up the energy to get dressed in the morning, the people who are prepared to keep trying. They are the courageous people who I respect.
Some people seem to go through life either oblivious to their impact on others or without care for its consequences. Yet they are not the future of our society. I truly believe that self-awareness is key to personal change and personal change is key to combatting stigma and other learned behaviours which plague our lives and societies today.

Awareness of this issue is a great first step in tackling the problem. Teaching people to slow down and challenge their own thoughts and behaviours before their pre-programmed reactions kick in is another matter.

I am not saying that all unconscious bias or stigma leads to discrimination or that it is intentionally applied by ‘bad people’. Much of it is unconscious! It is learned rather than chosen. Discrimination law is enormously valuable, but by also addressing cultural and personal change, I think we could reduce stigma and change the way people think about each other, including in the area of mental health. Whilst the law provides a compliance programme we, as individuals, hold the power to make a real, proactive difference.
I am an employment lawyer and the Equality Act doesn’t provide me with the remedy that I am looking for in my own personal challenges.
To be honest and frank, I am proud of what I have done to overcome my anxiety, learn from it and live with it along with all the ups and downs that brings. It has, I believe, made me a better, more resilient person, conscious of the needs of myself and others and so hopefully a better member of society. I do not want to live a life of fear, especially of what others think. The irony is, there are probably very few people whose opinions actually matter to me, there is just, unfortunately, a general inbuilt fear of societal views which we have to accept is there.

The gift this journey is giving me is a growing inner strength which in turn provides the building blocks for happy and contented, resilient life.

I am very pleased to be able to play a small part in all of this by volunteering as an Associate Member of Mind’s Welsh Governance Committee. I am also running the London Marathon for the charity Mind to help in the fight against stigma, particularly in the area of mental health. This is a big challenge for me. Although I run, I have never run a marathon! The challenge resonates with those coping with anxiety and stigma: it is no sprint, an obstacle to be set aside on first approach. It is a long term, and possibly life-long, quest but the real race can still be won.

Also, I have never written about this before. Although I have not gone in to detail here I hope that you can see how passionate I am about this subject and that I truly believe in the work that Mind is doing. One step at a time gets me through life and it will also hopefully get me through the marathon!!!

I am very grateful for any sponsorship (link below) and am also happy to talk to anyone about the subject of this article. There is so much more to say!

The thoughts and views here are my own, based on my experience only.