Mental Health and UK Employment Law – Part 3

At Thorpe Park in Surrey, actors dress up, hollow-eyed and gory, and chase terrified customers around a “Live Action Horror Maze” (says the website). If you really enjoy being scared out of your wits in the dark by strangers wielding chain saws then it sounds fun. However, the loose theme is that the actors are supposed to be ‘mental patients’ and the set (“a chaotic environment of noise, light and live action”, apparently) is referred to as The Asylum? Would that change your idea of fun?

The Asylum has been running for a number of years. It is popular with visitors and is intended to be harmless entertainment. So why does it only recently find itself in the press for negative reasons? Thorpe Park also appears to be perplexed by this question. In response to the criticism it’s received it has ‘helpfully’ pointed out that the attraction is not intended to be a realistic portrayal of a mental asylum as a place where ‘inmates’ chase you and try to kill you. Thanks for clarifying that one. However, this simply misses the point. Charities and mental health organisations work tirelessly on anti-stigma campaigns to raise the profile of mental health issues. The use of actors referred to as ‘mental patients’ dressed up in blood-stained clothing and hiding in the dark with the sole intention of scaring people silly does rather go against efforts to “de-myth” the impact of mental illness on people at home and at work, as does the Park’s own encouragement to “watch your back as you encounter dead ends, hidden corners and eyes that watch you from the shadows”. Hardly an advertisement for the care of those with serious mental illnesses, you might say.

Thorpe Park is not alone. Other companies have recently failed also to tune into public opinion on this point. Tesco and Asda were criticised for having Halloween costumes named ‘Mental Patient’ and ‘Psycho Ward’, as mentioned in Part 1 of this series. I am not trying to be a fun sponge. Halloween is a good chance to lighten up and indulge your love of fancy dress but just because it is Halloween does not mean that anything goes. It is hard to think of any other section of the population which could be treated in the same way – can you imagine the outrage if The Asylum were renamed The Hospital and punters were chased by “patients” with crutches and wheelchairs? Or if the “killers” were all from ethnic minorities or wearing prominent religious dress or symbols?

All that aside, this recent press has at the very least got people talking and this should be viewed positively. As employment lawyers we have seen the adverse effects of reluctance to speak about mental health in the workplace on both employees and employers. If an employee is nervous to speak openly for the fear of stigma, or the employer is afraid to ask for fear of an allegation of harassment, this can cause problems if the employee has unexplained absences or his performance or conduct suffers. There are a number of ‘non-legal’ ways to help employers and employees manage problems with mental illness and we are currently rolling out training for employers in conjunction with a leading mental health charity in how to use these tools effectively. For more details, please email me at the details above. In the interim, perhaps steer away from The Asylum as a stop on your team-building day at Thorpe Park.