Mental Health, Unemployment; Compassion

I have learned over the years that first appearances don’t always tell the story. There are many people who, upon first meeting, seem to be in earnest to find employment, but whose actions conflict with what their words would have you believe. It’s easy to mistakenly assume that these people lack commitment to finding a job. You might categorize them as lazy, attempting to intentionally deceive, not putting in the effort to get a job  while telling you they want to work. Often you come to realize however that something else is at play.

Most government programs that provide the basics such as food and shelter have expectations that people look to find income, usually obtained via employment, and work towards financial independence. At its simplest, those who work give a portion of their income to support those in society who don’t. Those with employment income generally assume that those in receipt of help are working hard to get off those programs and join the ranks of the employed. They also assume that those who administer such programs are providing help and advice to aid the unemployed to reach this same goal as quickly as possible.. They also believe this safety net built into our society is meant to support people for a relatively short time until a person finds financial independence.

Most people I believe, have compassion and care for those who are out of work, especially for those incapable of supporting themselves; for whom there is no alternative to find food and shelter. And there is the crux of the situation for a lot of people who see themselves as supporting others; some want to work and try hard to become financially independent. Others seem to avoid looking for work, and these are easier to spot to the average citizen. After all, someone looking for work is either inside some employment agency, working at finding a job from their home, or they are mingling on the street, dressed like workers, on their way to job interviews, meetings, etc.

Those who avoid looking for work or seem to be avoiding looking for work are easier to spot. These are the people we see who look to be of a working age, but are loitering about, sitting in parks and coffee shops, permanently dressed in ‘weekend’ clothes, walking with no purpose, certainly seem to have no work destination in mind. If we saw a cane, a limp, a cast on the arm or some such visible sign of disability, we’d extend compassion, believing their idle time is justified.

However, for many such people, there is no visible sign of disability. Look them over quickly and they seem to be healthy and capable of working; doing something productive. It’s likely that this person you’re looking at is dealing with some mental health issue. Now you might be thinking that this presumption is a bit of a leap, brought on the amount of time I’ve spent in my profession. Fair enough.

So let’s look at you. So you’ve got a  job and you’ve never been on assistance let alone out of work for long. You’re self-image is pretty intact and you’ve got a pretty healthy outlook on things. Suppose now you found yourself out of work. Downsized, laid off, fired, had to move to another city because your spouse took a job there, went back to school and are just job searching now – take your pick. In the short-term you find yourself in shock. No matter, you’ll be working soon.

While optimistic at first, you find your social connections; friends and past work colleagues treat you differently. First off, the work connections are only accessible when you call on them, and there’s less and less to talk about from your end. Your friends keep up at first, but you find you’re left out more and more because after all, money is tight and get-togethers for Spa Days and weekend jaunts to concerts and hotels out-of-town aren’t in your budget, so they call less on you to join them.

You cut back where you can on groceries, trips in the car, clothing and entertainment. Your parents and relatives tell you to just get a job, after all you’ve been successful before so it won’t be long. But it is. Your self-esteem has taken a hit as has part of your identity; the part of you that identified yourself by a profession and as an employee.

Making a résumé and applying for jobs seems simple enough, but you’re not getting the results you’ve had in the past. While applying for work, you’re not eating as well as you should; groceries are more expensive so you buy the cheaper, pre-made and packaged stuff. You put off dental work and new glasses maybe – you’ll get them when you’re working.

Look, the bottom line is the longer you’re out of work the harder it is to keep positive. Doubt, anxiety, sadness, depression; it’s not hard to see how these creep in and can be debilitating. When you experience these yourself or work with those who do, it’s easier to see how someone can want to work but literally be unable to do what is necessary to be successfully employed; sometimes for a long time, some times forever. And the longer ones unemployment lasts, the harder it becomes to break the routine.


Consider Sharing Your Condition

Yesterday I sat down with someone I’ve recently been helping to find employment.  It was a very productive meeting of just over two hours in length, and the reason it was so productive is we got well beyond the surface chatter quickly. As you’ll soon read, the time was apparently right for her to make a trusting disclosure.

We’ve just completed a couple of weeks in others company as she was one of 12 people invited to attend an intensive job searching program; the kind where those attending actively job search for much of the day with the guidance of myself and another Employment Counsellor.

One of the key things I stressed throughout the two weeks was the element of trust. When you trust someone who is in a professional position to provide help, opening up about your personal barriers can be profitable. The problems you’re experiencing may be similar to ones that others before you have had, and there is a chance that whomever you trust your challenges with just may have some viable options to lay before you to consider; one of which might just address your problem.

In the middle of the 2nd week, this particular lady mentioned that although she found it embarrassing, she wanted me to know that she was hard of hearing in both ears and was wearing a very well hidden hearing device. This explained a lot. Suddenly I looked at her differently; not badly you understand. No I looked at her and taking a few seconds to process this new information,  it helped me to re-evaluate what I’d previously experienced and as a result come to wonder about.

English you see, is not this person’s first language. It’s quite good in my opinion, and I can easily carry on a long conversation with her without ever misunderstanding her words, but she herself feels her English needs improvement. Where you and I hear someone speak and respond quickly to their questions, she hears a question and then translates the English to her native tongue in her head, knows what she wants to say and then translates it back to English as the words leave her mouth; all in a matter of seconds. That’s impressive; well to me at any rate. However, those few extra seconds required to perform all this sometimes have her concerned that she appears slow or unsure of herself.

In addition to the process I’ve just described for you however, she also has diminished hearing, and so she’d often ask for questions to be repeated, especially if the speaker was facing her or spoke very quietly – and speaking quietly was something I’d been doing when working with her one-on-one with the others present in the same room. Aha! My lower voice when speaking quietly off to her left or right meant she didn’t grasp all the words I spoke; she was only getting a portion of the sentences which led to the requests for repeating myself and the turned head to face me as I spoke quite often.

Her fear in revealing this condition was twofold; one she’s a proud woman and doesn’t want to appear weak and two she’s afraid that as a Receptionist or Administrative Assistant, she’d be discriminated against for having hearing loss.

We talked about this condition and here in Ontario we’re fortunate enough to have organizations like the Canadian Hearing Society. This is a fabulous organization who helps people just like her in a number of ways. They have employment programs specifically to help job seekers with hearing loss. They have devices that can amplify phone calls and most importantly help people come to speak with assertiveness when sharing their condition. So I put her on to them for help.

We also talked about the idea of if and when it might be appropriate to share with an employer her hearing condition. This she could do at the application stage in a cover letter, at the outset of an interview, or towards the end of the interview after having just proved she could carry herself well throughout the conversation. Her fear of course is that the employer might discriminate as I say and she’d be out of the running for a job. But, as I said, how long would she last if the employer didn’t know and it appeared in the first few days that this new hire needed so much repeated? Maybe it would be better to miss an opportunity during an interview than to be hired and then let go by keeping things to herself.

Another idea I floated was just telling the interviewer during that, “Tell me about yourself” question that she has a slight hearing loss and that looking directly at her when speaking and speaking clearly would be very much appreciated. A small plaque on her Reception desk if hired saying pretty much the same to anyone who approached her would also make things easier.

The option of whether or not to share what you perceive as a liability or disability is a personal one. I’d be very interested – as would I’m sure others reading this – in hearing from you if you’re experiencing something similar. What’s been your experience? When we open up and share this way, not only are you helping yourself,  you’re helping others.

So I ask you my reader, if you’ve disclosed your own condition, how did you do so, at what point, and what was the result?

And Then Mike Walked In And Dumped On Me

Yesterday at my place of employment, I was scheduled not to do any workshop, but rather to staff our drop-in Resource Centre. This Centre is exclusively for two groups of people; those on Disability and those on Ontario Works (Welfare, Social Assistance). Essentially it’s a room with 20 computers, 2 fax machines, 2 photocopiers, 4 telephones, literature and 1 staff person to monitor and help anyone who needs it.

In addition to clients using the Resource Centre itself, there are 2 workshop rooms off of the main area I’ve just described, and people in those rooms must pass through the Resource Centre both going into their sessions, and upon leaving for the day, breaks and lunch. So depending on many factors such as the weather, it can be a busy place. Some use our facilities for the purposes they are designed for; job and housing searches, calling Caseworkers and Landlords, photocopying and faxing things to employers and Caseworkers etc. And there are some who use the Centre more as a social hub, where they can get in out of the cold, make some human contact and feel included and welcomed rather than stereotyped and unwanted.

So to set the scene it was a busy morning, and just after returning from a break, I was informed that Mike was looking for me and had just stepped out for a minute. No last name…just Mike with the cane…Kelly would know me when he saw me. Turns out, as soon as Mike did walk in with his cane, he was right and I did know him.

Mike’s brain is sharp as a whistle, but his right leg will never be the same, and he’s had numerous operations over the years to fix it without success. Now on Disability assistance, he no longer is compelled to look for work, and at 56 he could just play out the rest of his life hobbling and shuffling around collecting a monthly cheque to pay rent and buy food, but his brain still functions and he wants to feel useful and do something. Problem is Mike’s back is all messed up too, and he can’t sit for periods without pain, and even riding in a taxi or bus is extremely painful every time a pothole is hit, the vehicle turns or there’s quick starts and stops.

So there were Mike and I seated and obviously he had something on his mind. Not a good day to chat privately and leisurely however. Mike had no sooner started chatting when people started needing various things. Some needed information about them off the computer I could access in front of me, one needed a bus ticket to get home, another needed help at their computer station, ‘just for a sec’. I felt bad I couldn’t give Mike my full attention, and show my concern for whatever he was really on about. You see not everybody walks up and lays things out. Mike is a story-teller, an avoider; he’ll eventually get around to what is really on his mind, but in the interim, I’ve learned to be patient. But this approach means I’ve got to rely on my ability to read between the lines, listen for clues, zero in on what’s important and what is filler. Hard to do though yesterday and have him feel validated.

But Mike was patient. Once we got past his four jokes, the lines of concern appeared on his brow and because I was watching for this, I could see he was moving from fluff to substance. Turns out his living situation for the last six months has been that when the tenant upstairs runs a shower – which would be daily, Mikes kitchen sink would fill up with sewage streaming down from the ceiling. Telling the landlord apparently got him nowhere, and only recently after the problem started anew in his living room area did the landlord take action.

Four different contractors hired by the landlord came in, exposed the ceiling back to the framing and then packed up their tools and left. The problems were so extensive, the wiring so poor, that they didn’t want their names to be associated with all the violations that they saw and the landlord just wanted them to slap on a false ceiling rather than address the problems as it would cost too much. For six months Mike has lived this way, with sewage raining down daily, the stench coming with it, the ceiling in two rooms open, and the in and out of traffic but no progress. And all the while of course, rent is being demanded at full price.

“You can’t live there Mike. You’ve got to get out for your physical and mental health”, I said. But you see Mike thought he was dealing originally with a decent landlord. The first few months he bought in to the landlords tale of making progress and having things done soon. But now the landlord wants Mike out and is threatening eviction. The reason is that for November and December, Mike has refused to pay his rent whatsoever in protest. Apparently he’s been taking photos and writing down the violations he’s learned of.

Mike didn’t actually ask for anything except my time, and he got a smattering of that. At the end of the conversation, we stood and he shook my hand which I grabbed with both of mine. He wished me a merry Christmas and left. He already knows his legal options but yesterday just needed to vent and know somebody was listening. And sometimes it’s not critical to have any of the answers, just be in the seat when someone wants to talk.