Tajikistan's man in London

Tajikistan's first ever ambassador to the UK, Erkin Kasymov, says that before 9/11 the international

"When you open an embassy in London it is a huge responsibility,” observes Erkin Kasymov, Tajikistan's first ever ambassador to the UK.

And Kasymov has scarcely had time to unpack his diplomatic bag - he only arrived in May in what can be seen as an exercise in increasing people's awareness of his country and boosting trade links.

“Frankly speaking,” says Kasymov. “Before September 11 the international community didn't pay enough attention to the region.” And they still don’t.

The day I went to do the interview at Tajikistan Embassy's tiny offices in West London, the war between Russia and Georgia was in full swing. There were reports of Russian troops getting ever closer to the capital Tbilisi. Tajikistan is another ex-Soviet state so it was interesting to get Kasymov's perspective.

“You know it is very old conflict which we have in that region and it is very difficult to make some comments,” he said, clearly determined to be carefully diplomatic.

No condemnation of Russia will be found here. The small Republic of Tajikistan is eager not to make enemies with any major world powers.

“We know the current tragedy happening in South Ossetia was initiated by Georgian forces and there has been a reply from the Russian forces but maybe it is not our competency to analyse who is guilty who is not,” Kasymov said. “What is going on in Ossetia is awful... They should come back to the negotiation table in order to find a peaceful solution. There was a very good proposal made by Mr. Bush to get back to the positions according to the situation on 6 of August. And there is a good proposal from Russia for Georgian forces to jump back to their positions before the clashes.” He urged all sides to stop the killing of people.

Tajikistan, with a population of close to a seven million, has a lot to offer a world deeply ignorant of it's rich history and exotic culture. Located just north of Afghanistan, the region was once a part of the grand Persian empire, a fact reflected even today in the Tajik language and in the customs and traditions of the people. Nowruz, or the Persian new year, is celebrated not just in Iran but in Tajikistan and Afghanistan as well. The capital city of Dushanbe derives its name, unusually, from the Persian word for Monday. This is because the Dari language spoken by Afghans is closely related – together with Farsi – to Tajik. But Tajik is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, a reflection of the country’s Soviet past, and not the Arabic writing system used in Iran and Afghanistan.

However, there have been recent calls emanating from certain quarters in Tajikistan to change the alphabet back to Arabic. This is, of course, easier said then done. Kasymov seems to think that now might not be the best time for such a change to happen, echoing the sentiments expressed earlier by the Tajik President Emomali Rahmon. “It is a very complicated problem [the language issue],” he says. “It is a question for the very far future."

Maybe, however, just maybe those calls to adopt the Arabic alphabet reflects a yearning in some Tajiks’s for their past, a longing to reconnect with traditions that belonged to their ancestors. “During Soviet period we were isolated from those countries [Iran and Afghanistan] and their people,” says Kasymov. “But now after getting independence …the situation is very different.” Today Tajikistan enjoys good relations with Iran and Afghanistan, both culturally and on a governmental level. In fact Iran was the first country to setup an embassy in Dushanbe in 1991.

Moving on to opportunities available for UK investors, Kasymov is keen to highlight the country’s vast production of cotton. “We produce huge amount of cotton,” he says. “But we only sell raw cotton. We cannot reproduce it into different materials such as suits and jeans.” Another area to look into is hydroelectric power production, says the ambassador: “We have good markets especially in Afganistan, in Pakistan and in Iran. They are ready to buy a huge amount of our electricity which might be produced in Tajikistan. Such projects are just waiting for investors.”

Tajikistan is also next door to China, specifically Xinjiang province which was the scene of last weeks deadly attacks in Kashgar which left 16 police officers dead. Kasymov expresses concern about the threat from growing militancy in China. “We claim such activity in China is not to the benefit of stability and that it has bad influence in other parts of the region.” However, he says, that his country has solved, to a degree, its own problems with Islamists. He is referring to a peace deal signed in 1997 with Islamists following a bloody civil war estimated to have left up to 50, 000 people dead.

He does, however, make a vague allusion to Tajikistan's neighbour to the west, Uzbekistan, where the government has run a fierce campaign against religious elements it claims to be a threat. “Such situations as in China or in other areas of the region may have an influence in other parts, in Uzbekistan for example,” says Kasymov in an ominous tone. “You should remember the events that took place in Andijan.” A reference to the infamous 2005 massacre in Uzbekistan where the security forces killed several hundred protesters, although some have claimed the actual figure to be in the thousands.

The grave security situation in Afghanistan also does not lend itself well towards developing stability in the region. In fact, Tajikistan faces a severe energy and food crisis. Another major issue the ambassador highlighted is the water shortage which plagues many Central Asian states:“If you do not have enough water you cannot grow any kind of agriculture. To solve this problem a joint regional effort is needed, there is no other way.”

In spite of all these problems, Kasymov appears optimistic and, indeed, enthusiastic for his country and his new role as ambassador to the UK. Especially on issues of business investment he appears particularly eager. He represents a country looking to the future.

“We have had the Arab invasions, the Mongol invasions. Hopefully we can overcome the Soviet period as well. However today we are a sovereign and independent country...Of course we brought many things from the history of those times,” says Kasymov. “But now the most important thing is to move forward and not what we left behind.”

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “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 says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.