Angela Jaspan was promoted to Assistant Manager at Colours Café. This was in spite of the fact that she has schizo-affective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar, that can be debilitating at times. Angela says that work gives her a sense of purpose and a reason to get up every morning. Her success at work illustrates that, with the right supports and accommodation, even a severe mental illness does not need to prevent someone from finding purpose through meaningful work.

A job in the hospitality industry like Angela’s requires interaction with customers. Angela enjoys this part of her job, but acknowledges, "There’s always the chance that a reoccurrence of symptoms could happen." Distress, mistrust, anxiety, or feeling scattered are common symptoms that can interfere with work. Simple accommodations can include clarifying expectations, assigning a mentor, modifying duties to limit customer interaction, scheduling weekly or bi-weekly meetings to touch base, and providing flexibility in job scheduling and duties. Sometimes it may be necessary to remain off work until the illness can be managed effectively.

Angela encourages both the employer and employee to develop a plan to prepare for an episode that may occur in the workplace. Some examples of what to include in a plan are:

  • Documenting how a person or people responded during previous mental health episodes and what worked well
  • Employee behaviours and the circumstances that may have led up to the episode
  • Strategies that worked during an episode

Engaging employees in a discussion about what works for them, how they want the employer to respond, and who could be contacted, such as a family member or treating professional, could also help. By being aware of potential steps to manage episodes at work, a relapse could be prevented from escalating into a crisis or damaging the employee’s reputation or relationships.

Angela continues, saying that a common aspect of a severe illness like schizophrenia is a personal lack of self-awareness when unwell. As a result, those experiencing these changes often do not reach out for help. For this reason, pre-planning when and how to intervene is the most important part of an approach to supporting someone with the potential for a serious mental illness or psychosis.

Angela concludes by saying that most of the time, she is a productive and effective employee. It is always a possibility that her illness, like other chronic or episodic illnesses, could become serious and require medical attention. However, an employer who is able and willing to identify when she is not well, can help her get early and effective care so that she can recover and return to being a contributing team member at work.

If an employee is in psychological crisis, Mental Health First Aid provides guidelines to assist. Important strategies include remaining calm and respectful of the person. This means treating the person’s fears and delusions as real, while being patient and taking your cues on how to act from them. For example, if the person is avoiding eye contact and shrinking away, do not touch them without their permission.

Not everyone with a serious mental illness could successfully work, but for employers like Rainbow’s End (a registered charity running a series of social enterprises like Colours Café), it is a rewarding experience to offer meaningful work to someone like Angela who is successfully managing her mental illness.