Mental Illness and the Workplace, How Flexible Working Can Offer Relief

10/02/2015 17:48 GMT | Updated 12/04/2015 10:59 BST

The British are notoriously fanatical about routine and utter sticklers for time, particularly when it comes to our occupations. The 19th century Industrial Revolution instilled a machine like sense of efficiency that has seemingly never waned, despite modern technology dictating a new and contrary set of rules. You only need attempt to cross London at 8.30 any morning Monday through Friday for sufficient evidence of this.

So last year, when news broke of flexible working being approved in the UK, the nation reacted with understandable surprise and disbelief. BBC news anchors interrogated government representatives on the breakfast programme, seemingly trying to find error and deceit in the story. You can't blame them for doing so; it's early days yet and although we may now have the right to ask, whether or not that request is granted depends largely on ones employer.

While in a general sense our superiors are slowly recognising the necessity to attend non-work commitments that fall within the sacred hours, it will still be a while before the new rules are accepted by the more heinous of CEOs. Ambiguous legal requirements, stating employers must handle a request in a "reasonable manner" leaves ample room for business's manipulation, while potential abuse of the policy on the employee's part means a pre-laid foundation of trust and respect in the workplace is essential for the policy to function properly.

There are pros and cons to every situation, but what goes without saying is the increased level of productivity, team spirit and morale this policy will instigate at work. In turn reducing stress, irritability and anxiety as colleagues are able to spend more time with family and friends, while still producing work in a timely manner. The overall impact this could have is transformation of the workspace from tedious wormhole where time is sucked backwards (just a mild exaggeration here) to somewhere people actually want to be.

The impact these legislations will have on the general working public is indisputable, but it's one thing to be fairly capable in day-to-day life and need the odd change of shift to accommodate modern metropolitan living. What if you suffer from an invisible (but no less debilitating for its elusiveness) condition? Unfortunately, poor mental health and an office environment are about as diametrically opposed as you can get; one relies on infallible structure, rigorous regime and confidence, while the other is unpredictable, volatile and strips you of identity.

The mental health charity Mind states on its website that employment "provides identity, contact, friendship and structure", but one of the hardest things to do when suffering from mental health issues - of any type or severity - is to try and adhere to the structure set by an employer. Because when you (inevitably) fail to conform, questions are asked, and those questions are largely unanswerable. I know this because I ask myself the same questions every day, and I'm no closer to knowing the truth.

On top of the number of people suffering from continuing mental health issues, current figures suggest two million people in the UK experience work related mental health problems at some point in their lives, with stress being the largest cause. What flexible working will accommodate - to the benefit of both employer and employee - is for one to be able to determine his or her own schedule.

When a person's mood and mental capabilities fluctuate considerably (which is an inevitability of the affected mind), flexible working introduces a degree of security to an otherwise uncertain existence. Mind advises that simple requests such as being able to work from home, or introducing flexitime may help with managing mental health and work. But unfortunately I know few employers who would agree to this without outside enforcement.

Where mental health and the workplace are concerned, I think overall what needs be realised is that the symptoms one experiences and the actions they generate are not his or her own fault, but rather - as with many other debilitating illnesses - the fault of some unknown and unexplainable force, only here no visible symptoms occur to incite sympathy. If employers were able to treat mental health and the affect it has on a person in much the same way they do a malignant tumour, then enabling an employee the occasional day off work or option to work from home wouldn't be quite such an issue.