The country with no politics finds its voice

From inside Libya

A fortnight ago, Tripoli was calm and quiet. The sunny main square, scene of the recent uprisings, is where couples would go for romantic walks. The women, in colourful sequinned hijabs, would sit on heart-shaped love seats surrounded by fake flowers. There is not much else to do in this tiny city centre, which has only a few cafés. Alcohol is banned and the streets are deserted at night. Friends would joke that Libya was the most boring place on earth.

For the past six months, I have lived with a family in Tripoli. While they talked openly about their lives, hopes and dreams, politics was never discussed. Together we celebrated Eid ul-Adha - the Islamic festival of sacrifice - by killing a goat and cooking it. The air on our balcony filled with the scent of burning charcoal and you could hear the murmur of a television from inside.

“This precious and great creature that lives among us," a choir on television sang. "We hope he will always be our leader." Images appeared of Muammar al-Gaddafi, riding a horse, black cape billowing behind him. When I asked the daughter to translate, she pretended not to understand. "We're not interested in politics," I was told.

Oil workers and rich Libyans I met at parties - drinking illegal alcohol, watched by ever-present spies - would scoff at the idea of a Libyan revolt. This month, those same people sit trapped inside their flats, listening to the hammer of gunfire outside. Their doors are locked tight and they are living off food and water hastily bought from shops now boarded up. They cannot use the phone and there is no internet access. They know that Gaddafi's African mercenaries have attacked demonstrators in the main square and surrounding streets, shooting civilians. Saif al-Islam, educated at the London School of Economics and previously portrayed as a western liberaliser, threatens to make Libya "worse than Iraq".

And yet, amazingly, people who always rejected politics continue to demonstrate. One young, handsome Libyan I know has gone out to protest despite huge rows in his family.

When the revolts started in Tunisia and Egypt, one sensed change in the air. People I know started to watch al-Jazeera. My friend Fatima told me about how she had been watching events in Egypt with her friends, crying tears of happiness. “If there are protests, I will join them," she whispered, gripping her coffee cup tightly; her words nearly made me drop mine. "You know what would happen to me if anyone had heard me say that," she added. She knew that although the image presented to the world was one of a unified and stable Libya, it was never this. Opposition had long existed in the country. It is significant that the recent riots started in the east and unsurprising that an army officer from there reclaimed the city of Benghazi for its people.

The Libyan nationalist leader Omar Mukhtar fought his final battles against the Italians in the valleys of the green mountains near Benghazi, in 1931. Ever since, the people of the east have opposed power in Tripoli. Because of this defiance, Benghazi, though the main city of the east, is practically a wasteland, largely ignored and neglected by the central government.

Colonel of truth

Even within the Gaddafi family there are divisions over control of the media and the different provinces. Besides this infighting, there is the pressure on the Gaddafis from the Libyan Islamic resistance. Libya has been praised in the west as a model of how to eliminate or contain Islamist terrorism.

In truth, the militant Muslim groups merely went underground; in Tripoli, you would often hear of battles in the desert between Islamists and government forces. The outside world has been complicit in the myth of Libyan normality. From being a pariah state, Libya became a valued partner of the west, one with oil wealth and a willingness to tackle illegal immigration into southern Europe from Africa.

The country's human rights record is appalling. The UN's High Commission for Refugees was recently banned from Libya; asylum-seekers and refugees have few rights if any. "Libya has no qualms about arresting and torturing foreign nationals," an embassy official told me. Even when rumours spread of foreigners disappearing, a media silence prevails. None of this has stopped Libya from sitting as a member of the UN Human Rights Council.

A myth is told about Libya; that it has cleaned up its act, liberalised and become an acceptable ally. The events of the past week remind us that under Gaddafi, it has always been one of the most murderous regimes in the world and its people have always been silently desperate to escape it. Now, that anger and frustration has been released. Everyone who used to think that he or she understood Libya or could predict what would happen there has been left speechless.

The author, whose name has been changed at her request, lives and works in Tripoli

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants

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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.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants