World Mental Health Day 2017: This Start-Up Will Be Run Solely By People With Mental Illnesses

'Just because you have a mental health issue, it doesn’t mean you’re incompetent.'

When it comes to openly discussing mental health in the workplace, the UK has a long way to go.

Research published earlier this month found more than one million UK employees could face demotion, disciplinary or dismissal after sharing mental health issues at work. This is despite the fact that three in five (60%) employees say they’ve experienced mental health issues because of their job.

Jana Dowling, 34, from Canonbury, and Clare Nash, 32, from Harrow, know just how difficult tackling mental health at work can be - the pair have both taken sick leave because of it.

And they aren’t alone, at least one in six workers experiences common mental health problems including anxiety and depression, according to the Office for National Statistics – that’s a significant proportion of employees and customers.

In July this year, Jana and Clare launched a new venture called The 888 Collective to help people who take time off work due to mental illness get back into employment. The pair describe it as a “stepping stone” for those who are anxious about diving headfirst back into a workplace environment.

Jana Dowling and Clare Nash launched The 888 Collective to create an open and safe space for people suffering with poor mental health.
Sonny Malhotra
Jana Dowling and Clare Nash launched The 888 Collective to create an open and safe space for people suffering with poor mental health.

Jana approached Clare with the idea for the business in March 2017 and, four months later, the social enterprise became a reality.

“We want to create a space where people aren’t afraid to say what their issues are, for fear of being judged or discriminated against,” Jana tells HuffPost UK. “We want people to be open - so if you have paranoia and are feeling quite paranoid, you can come over and tell us that, then we can acknowledge it and ask how you are.”

There will be three stages to the business. The first involves opening a pop-up cafe and shop in Hackney which will be staffed by people with mental health issues (it launches on 31 October), the second involves developing and selling merchandise and clothing using artwork, poetry and stories sent in from freelancers, and the third stage will revolve around hosting events across London, like mindfulness and yoga workshops.

Currently, the organisation is staffed by Jana, Clare and a handful of volunteers, however in the next two months the pair are looking to hire between three and five people to run the pop-ups. Next year, they hope to hire more than 25 members of staff and, as the company grows, want to offer a diverse range of jobs to people with mental illnesses: from designers to caterers to PR roles.

The pair aim to employ people for up to six months to build their confidence, before helping them move into a more permanent field of employment.

The business was inspired by Jana’s own mental health journey - she took time off from working as a freelance producer last year after experiencing severe depression. “It was slowly getting worse and worse,” she recalls. “It got to the point where I just couldn’t do my job.”

Jana had come to the end of a project at work and the company she was freelancing with agreed she should take time off to focus on her health. She was off for two months in total and, during this time, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder - something which she welcomed after decades of not fully understanding what was wrong.

“It was a diagnosis that really helped me to understand the patterns of my behaviour,” she says. “I started to get better, I started to take medicine and I actually spent two months focusing on myself: getting healthy and well, eating properly, exercising, getting enough sleep.”

But when she finally felt well enough to return to work, she experienced debilitating anxiety. “I didn’t know whether I should tell people that I’d had to take a couple of months off for my mental health, I didn’t know if I’d be judged, I didn’t know what type of job would be well-suited to me,” she explains.

Jana was lucky in that she found work with a friend, who required a personal assistant. During the first few weeks, she didn’t get much done: “I was very anxious and worried about making mistakes.” But her friend was patient, understanding and, if Jana did make mistakes, she would encourage her to try again.

Most importantly she treated Jana as an equal, not like someone who was “damaged”, and it wasn’t long before she was back on her feet and producing again.

Clare, her business partner, has lived with depression and anxiety for as long as she can remember. She managed a pub for years, however the accompanying lifestyle - long hours, late nights, alcohol - did not do her health any favours.

“The hospitality industry isn’t very considerate when it comes to mental health issues,” she explains. “A lot of people in that industry burn out. I was pretty close to burning out about a year ago, so Jana got me a job as an office manager at a TV production company.”

Clare worked there for a short period of time, however she soon began to experience severe panic attacks - despite the environment being far less stressful to her previous job.

It was at this point that Jana and Clare put their heads together to focus on a venture that would help others, like themselves, rebuild confidence after taking time off from work.

“Just because you have a mental health issue, it doesn’t mean you’re incompetent,” Jana says. “It just means you have a mental health issue.”

When asked if there’s one company that’s leading the way when it comes to supporting employees with mental health issues, the pair draw a blank.

“That’s why we launched The 888 Collective,” Jana says. “I’d struggle to name an individual company. There are a lot of companies out there who are aware of mental health and it’s being taken into consideration a lot more, but there’s still a long, long way to go.”

It’s crucial that companies across the UK do more to support staff when it comes to mental illness. Jana and Clare want to see managers creating a more open and comfortable environment at work so employees don’t feel afraid to speak about their mental health and what their issues are.

It should be in everyone’s interest to do this, as simple steps “can save employers up to 30% of the costs associated with mental ill health at work”, according to The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health.

The same body of research found that, on average, employees take seven days off work a year for health reasons - 2.8 of these days are estimated to be related to mental health problems.

It’s a sad state of affairs that many workers feel the need to lie about the reason they take time off. A YouGov poll of 1,250 workers in England and Wales, on behalf of mental health charity Mind, found 95% of people who took time off for stress cited a different reason for their absence - often a physical health problem.

But employers should treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick, Madeleine McGivern, head of workplace wellbeing programmes at Mind, tells HuffPost UK.

“Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain,” she explains.

“Sick days can and should be used for a mental health problem, just as for a physical health problem, if it’s severe enough that someone needs time off.”

Madeleine says offering workplace wellbeing initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), flexible working hours, and ensuring supportive line management of all staff, can all make a huge difference.

Jana adds that an important part in reducing the stigma attached to mental health is by looking at the illnesses in a more positive light.

“I would like to see people standing up and saying what they suffer from a lot more and celebrating it,” she explains. “Whenever people talk about mental health it’s really negative. But the challenging parts aren’t the only aspect of mental health.

“I want people to talk about the good things that come from their mental health issues, like with my bipolar, sometimes it enables me to feel incredibly confident and like I can take on the world, there are some wonderful things that come from it. I’d like to see us celebrating this a bit more.”

There’s a way to go until we feel more comfortable discussing mental health at work, however small start-ups like The 888 Collective are kickstarting crucial conversations, bridging the gap between permanent work and sick leave, and proving mental illness doesn’t have to stop you from acing your job.

Jana concludes: “People are afraid that mental illness makes you seem weak, but it doesn’t.

“Clare isn’t weak, I’m not weak. We’re creating this company which we’re perfectly capable of doing - and we’re going to do a great job of it too.”