Learning from errors of the past

The emotive rhetoric and instant clampdowns are gone. Now, under Gordon Brown, there appears to be a

Even before the terrorist attacks it was going to be a pivotal first week for Gordon Brown, Prime Minister. He had long been planning a root-and-branch cabinet reshuffle, an overhaul of the constitution and a major announcement on health. Questions had been raised about how he would react in an emergency, but he emerged strengthened from his first crisis. His bold appointment of Jacqui Smith appears to have paid off. She may not have run a large department, but her refusal to indulge in the machismo of the Blair-era Home Office has won plaudits from across the spectrum.

Just as we thought we knew where the terrorist threat was coming from, the rules of the game have changed. Again. The attacks in London and Glasgow may have failed, but they have shifted the ground under the feet of the police and security service once more. Security sources admit they knew little about the backgrounds of the network of jihadi medics working at the heart of the NHS. The rhetoric of the government and its advisers had, over the past couple of years, focused on the danger from foreign imams. It now seems that resources would have been better spent clamping down on foreign doctors. While Britain's security apparatus was still struggling to understand the scale of the threat from home-grown radicals, the jihad opened another front among sleepers working within the country's most revered institution.

News of the attacks came just as ministers in the Brown government were already preparing to dump the makeshift approach developed in the aftermath of the 7/7 attacks. Tony Blair's knee-jerk response of a 12-point anti-terror plan was delivered within weeks of the London bombs, while the then home secretary, Charles Clarke, was on holiday. Both cabinet and parliament were left in the dark. The plan, worked out on the back of an envelope by Blair and one or two Downing Street aides, has been largely discredited. Some ideas, such as closing down places of worship "fomenting extremism", are now acknowledged to have been downright dangerous.

Under Smith and her deputy Tony McNulty, the Home Office (now a homeland security department in all but name) has shown signs of a more thoughtful approach. Smith has emphasised the criminal nature of terrorist attacks, a welcome change from the apocalyptic language of the Blair years. There has been no suggestion, yet, of another wave of anti-terror legislation.

Instead, as Brown set out to parliament, the new approach to security is designed to bolster not just efficiency, but also public trust, which was so damaged by the misuse of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War. A new national security council should forge a closer working relationship between elected politicians and the intelligence services, while moves to make the Commons intelligence and security committee more accountable to parliament mark a significant reform.

Ministers in the new Brown government working closely on the issue of community co hesion also realise that attempts to reach out to the Muslim communities in the immediate aftermath of the 7/7 attacks were a failure. A task force with a series of working groups was set up to make proposals on improving relations with Britain's Muslims. More than 60 recommendations were made, but most were unacceptable to the government, such as demands for a full inquiry on the bombings and a recognition of the role of British foreign policy, notably on Iraq, in the radicalisation of Muslim youth. The rest were mostly ignored. Those invited to participate found the group dominated either by civil servants or by the government's allies in the Muslim Council of Britain. Ministers have been struggling to win back credibility ever since, and those who took part have grown deeply suspicious.

One minister intimately involved with the government's prevention of terrorism strategy told me: "We got it all wrong after 7/7. We should have held our nerve and not just leapt into doing something for the sake of it. We have had to start from scratch."

Foreigners and firebrands

There has already been one seismic shift in the understanding of militant Islam in Britain. It happened at the end of April 2003, when two British men, Asif Hanif and Omar Sharif, strapped themselves into explosive suicide belts and walked into a Tel Aviv bar to become martyrs. They too failed, but it sent a chill through Whitehall.

Until that point, "jihad" had been seen as a largely foreign phenomenon. Its British supporters, such as Abu Hamza, the hook-handed imam of Finsbury Park Mosque and the "Tottenham Ayatollah", Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, had been written off by the police and the intelligence service as clowns. Even the media, which demonised these firebrand preachers, couldn't quite believe they were for real. Journalists printed their claims that British boys were prepared to die for the cause and were undergoing military training abroad, but until Hanif and Sharif appeared in a Hamas martyrs' video, it didn't seem possible that British Muslims were really prepared to go that far.

No one now doubts the seriousness of the threat from home-grown radicals. In recent months, former members of the hardcore network have emerged to expose the full scale of the problem. Hassan Butt, formerly of al-Muhajiroun, the radical group, who once called for jihad against British forces in Afghan istan, has now publicly denounced his former comrades. Meanwhile, Ed Husain's The Islamist, an account of his time as a committed militant, has become required reading for government ministers. But the latest attacks in Glasgow and London would appear to show the existence of a whole new network of jihadis from the Middle East working in Bri tain's public services.

"The pattern is that there is no pattern," a senior Whitehall security official told me. "Except that these in dividuals all want to kill people."

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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.