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Michelle and the media

As the press swoons over Michelle Obama, it demonstrates our almost comical confusion about both rac

Magazines have a tendency to overstate. When Anna Wintour wrote her editor’s letter for the latest edition of American Vogue, with Michelle Obama as its cover star, this is what she said: “Change was the clarion call of Barack Obama’s election campaign, though I don’t think any of us at

Vogue initially realised that would include the difference that was going to be made by First Lady Michelle Obama’s wardrobe. It’s inspiring to see our first lady so serene and secure in her personal style.”

How about that? We all knew change was coming: that we were going to have a president who would shut down Guantanamo Bay, whose election would mark the end of racial injustice that is as old as the nation itself, who could conceivably take environmental concerns seriously just in time to save the world . . . But who knew, folks, that his wife would be able to choose clothes and then wear them? Who knew?

I have a theory about Michelle Obama's relationship with the American style media, and thence the American media in general. So much is riding on her as the load-bearing wall for the weight of Barack's racial symbolism - she is regarded so seriously as the keeper of the message - that the style media are trying to reclaim territory they know they've already lost. She's so stylish, she ought to be theirs.

The response of the English press has been no less intense. That she's not our first lady has seemingly had no impact on her centrality to our news agenda, where she governs style pages and comment sections. She is everywhere. This past week, the story of her appearance in American Vogue featured in every serious and mid-market newspaper, the Telegraph leading the pack with a large front-page photograph and a half-page article on page three.

Our rhetoric is very different, however. All the conversations Americans have about race, we have about class. Here is an illustration. In the run-up to the presidential election, Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote in New York magazine: "As much as any political campaign is an extended meditation on authenticity, the question of just how black the Obamas are has become particularly loaded."

In Britain, rather than carat-testing anybody's race, we filter it into language with which we are comfortable. Thus, Hannah Betts, in the Times, remarked: "Early attempts to out her as an 'angry black woman' merely succeeded in impressing upon many that despite being the descendant of slaves on both sides, Michelle is admirably anger-free. Meanwhile, the concerted efforts of this pump operator's daughter from Chicago's working-class South Side to pull herself up by her bootstraps make Cherie Booth's talk of being from the school of hard knocks look like so much whingeing."

The race element segues immediately into a question of class: the British baulk at thinking of black public figures in terms of the historical injustice they symbolise, and the issue of gender is no less vexed.

You rarely see feminism more confused than it is around a woman who's an intellectual but also hot. There is broad agreement that you can talk about Michelle Obama's "style impact" without undermining the sisterhood. Hell, the Guardian does it. But her fashion sense is often examined in terms of the impact it will have on smaller design houses, on high-street/haute mix'n'matching. Or else it is given a media spin: for instance, is she only the fourth black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue since its inception in 1892? (Yes, by the way, she is.)

For an organ that approaches Mrs O’s appearance less gingerly, refer to Elizabeth Grice in the Telegraph. Last August, she found her “statuesque, fond of big theatrical jewellery and bold colours; she does know, instinctively, how to use her innate power”. And at the inauguration ceremony? Well, Grice exclusively reports, Michelle hasn’t got any shorter: “She proved she is a natural in the spotlight – statuesque, fresh, bold, poised and unfailingly appropriate in her dress sense.” All these words are code for “not very feminine”. Even the idea that she knows “how to use her innate power” sounds less like the power of the vixen, more like she has a hand grenade tucked into her pants.

We do not know what to do with this model. We can't file Michelle Obama under WAG; she's no Carla Bruni but she's not frumpy, either. These style-appreciators seem to be lauding her for her sophisticated tastes, but are in fact saying "she's a bit like a bloke". The conservative press deals with its unease ("Is she a woman or a whole person? So hard to say!") by making her sound like a transvestite. And the liberal press covers its confusion ("Is she a feminist pioneer? Or just a woman?") by getting all sociological on her ass every time she wears a dress.

Of course, if we're talking about Michelle Obama, none of this matters at all. What does she care? She has the Rottweilers of the American press to worry about, if she's minded to worry about this kind of thing, which we have to hope she isn't. She does expose our concerns, though, showing us in comic denial about the extent of our evolution, our sophistication. She holds up a mirror to the culture; which, it turns out, has a paper bag over its head.

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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.