There is much written in business environments, such as on LinkedIn, about mental health in the workplace. Many of these articles are written obliquely. This post looks at my experiences, possible reasons for reticence in discussing it, and why things need to change.
Anxiety and Stress
Not so long ago I had reached a point where “nothing was working”*. Everything was a struggle with work impacting on home, home impacting on work, and both were impacting my personal relationships. This, my friends, was an entirely un-virtuous circle.
I knew that something had to change, else life would be an endless sequence of repeating issues, with a facade of normality over the top.* An unpleasant Groundhog Day.
The tipping point
For 12 months I had trained for the Brutal triathlon in Llanberis, Snowdonia. The Brutal is no ordinary triathlon. It’s tough.
The event became my absolute focus, consuming most of my spare time and my thinking time. I worried. I fretted. I planned. I fixated. I obsessed.
But I was fitter, healthier, had met new friends and was absolutely determined to complete it, which I did.
Almost immediately after the event I felt really down. Empty. Hollow. Directionless. I’ve read about this as a “post-event syndrome”. As such I thought it would pass, however it didn’t.
Things unexpectedly really started to get on top of me, as my training dropped and I had no big, single target.
It seems to me that I had been using the event of something of a distraction technique, that had in the short-term worked. Without it, the deeper underlying problems* now surfaced.
Unable to pull myself up, and having discussed seeking help a number of times, I finally did so, booking to see my GP.
My appointment with my GP was a real highlight. I’ll not go into detail, save to say I was prescribed Sertraline, and we explored aspects of my personal life I’d rather not have discussed!
The GP was amazing, and I can’t fault the help I have received. I also self-referred myself for privately funded counselling (though my employer offered support in this respect).
Having nothing to hide, and knowing that the only sane* course of action was to discuss my situation with my employer, I did so. If I’d been diagnosed with cancer, diabetes, or any one of a large range of medical conditions, I’d have done this. So for 2 reasons I broached the subject:
- Only then can appropriate allowances be made
- “What’s to hide?”. This is key, as I will come onto later
I doubt they could have been more supportive.
As a guy, I’ve never truly understood hormonally influenced mood-swings. I’ve tried, but I’m just, well, a guy. Sertraline took care of that learning point! Sitting doing some LEGO (there’s a good reason for this) a couple of days after I started my meds, I felt a wave of tearfulness wash over me from nowhere. I had no idea why. I couldn’t see where it was coming from at all.
The next day it happened again. All I wanted to do was cry. For no reason. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t worried (as such). I just wanted to cry. Buckets. It was a deep feeling, akin to a major bereavement, or loss, just without the evident reason.
After about 3 days I twigged that it was the Sertraline, and it was about 2 hours after the pill that I was experiencing the mood swing. Once I knew this, I was better able to cope with the wretched feeling it brought.
The impact gradually subsided over about 4 weeks, after which my dosage was doubled as planned. Oh, joy…
I started Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), having sessions every week. What became immediately apparent was just what a mess I was in* once the lid was lifted. It was a massive relief to be taking control of the situation, starting to develop coping techniques and knowing that I had professional support.
The impact was not immediate, but the world quickly started to look different. It was less about failing*, and falling short*, and more about understanding what led to that perspective.
Dips along the way
Over the first couple of months, things were not a straight path to mental heath nirvana. My emotions bounced around all over the place, and on any number of occasions I had to seek refuge at work and at home. I cancelled social arrangements, and hunkered down. My family were my lifeboat. I like a metaphor, but I really did feel that I was clinging on to them while the waves tossed me around.
It’s fair to say that for me, things got worse* before they got better in some ways as the veneer of coping was peeled away. It was a leap of faith in the pills and the CBT.
While the Sertraline and counselling were doing their thing (particularly the pills) I wasn’t on top of my game. I had to have isolation in order to focus, things took longer, and I made mistakes which meant that I had to review my own work.
But with allowances for this, the work got done. This is important. The work got done, and I was able to use my experience and knowledge, albeit slightly more slowly. I wasn’t unable to function, or think straight. In some ways, it was a bit like having a head-cold.
The option of time out of the office was, I believe, available. Over the period I took almost no sick time, though I made a little more use of working from home.
For reasons entirely unconnected with my mental health, I resigned from my employer. Aside from my boss and a friend, I had chosen not to discuss my condition at work. And this is where it starts to get interesting.
In choosing not to discuss matters, my thinking was infuenced by unhelpful thoughts. “They’ll think I can’t cope”, “They’ll feel they should make allowances for me”, “They’ll pity me”. There’s more. It’s a long list of negative* thoughts.
Having resigned, I gradually told people. Some were surprised, some were not, many knew people in the same situation. All were supportive and non-judgemental.
In my view, because the brain is not working quite how you’d like it*, our ability to make rational decisions about matters such as when and whether you make your condition known is clouded. Mine was.
I chose to put a post on my Facebook feed, saying that I had sought help for mental health issues, and that it was the best part of the year for me. The response was total support, a degree of admiration for being able to say it, and some knowing comments from friends, that hinted at shared experiences.
Outside work, as I told people (trust me, it wasn’t a conversational opener or chat-up line) I observed reactions. On occasion it was the “My dog just died” reaction. People just don’t, as a rule, know how to deal with it.
So, at both work and out of work, I received nothing but support and understanding, practical allowances and no pity or judgement.
Now, the above said, I’m not suggesting that I’d wear a sandwich board around the office with my condition emblazoned across it. No thanks.
Within businesses, I think there can be a tendency for fear or apprehension on both sides. If I’m right in this, then things need to change.
I’ve managed and worked alongside people with mental health issues. I’ve also witnessed the dramatic impact it can have on lives and careers when mis-handled.
I believe that employees in this position can fear being judged, that they might be held-back in their career, or that their responsibilities might be reduced. As I note earlier, I suggest that this may be perceived more than real.
A reduction in workload can be positive, giving space as it does for recovery*. A reduction in responsibilities to achieve this requires care and sensitivity in order to avoid a further sense of failure*. I wanted to continue doing the best job I could, and not be side-lined. I did continue my job as previous which helped.
In certain circumstances, I believe that employers can fear mental health issues. It’s far easier to deal with something more known and understood whose cause cannot be associated with the workplace. Most people in a managerial position will know people in their personal lives who have been affected by physical conditions. But how many people know, and have discussed matters with, people affected by mental health? A far smaller proportion I’d wager. This can result in less understanding and empathy at home and at work.
It would be natural for managers to conduct a degree of self-examination. Did I cause this? Am I responsible? How will this impact on me?
With the right corporate culture, training and processes, there should be no fear.
These points are specific to no one employer. I’ve been in the workplace for some while now.
Cause or Symptom
Just how many mental health issues are caused by work? Just how many are compounded by work? How many are simply evident at work? It’s impossible to tell.
In my case, the issues had nothing to do with my employer or job, but they manifested themselves there.
My ability to cope* as well as I would have liked with my work situation was a product of myriad events much earlier in life.
I’m more or less fixed* (my counsellor reprimands me for using phrases like that!). I have a balanced view across my life. I’m happy. Content. Relaxed. I enjoy life. I still have my pills, and my CBT.
I still worry about things. I still get frustrated. But that’s normal, and it’s all in perspective.
Most of all I’m relieved that I found help and acted on it. As the phrase goes, “You’re a long time dead”.
Maybe I’m in “remission”, and I know that it won’t be a straight path from here.
I have Googled “How to tie a noose.” That, I can tell you, is scary as fuck when you find your fingers typing that. It should never get to that point.
I meditate from time to time (not up a tree, or humming cross-legged in a field surrounded by joss-sticks). I employ mindfulness techniques, and I live in the moment. It’s so much nicer than ruminating and unhelpful thoughts.
Life is colourful, rewarding and worth living.
Why write this?
I hope it helps the discussion. Everybody is entitled get help, and neither pride nor fear should stand in the way of this.
There is discussion about businesses having trained Mental Health First-Aiders. This would be a fantastic step forwards, but would surely place a significant and undue burden on one or two individuals.
Statistics show that 56% people have experienced a mental heath issue, and 90% believe that it is still taboo. It takes a moment to really put those numbers in perspective.
It’s reported that mental health costs UK employers £34.9Bn per year. Why not require everyone with people management responsibilities to attend compulsory mental health training? I’ve no numbers to support this, but reducing lost time, productivity and turnover through prevention would I’m sure pay for itself. There would be a short-term cost for industry to bear, but the training and knowledge will apply equally outside work as in.
I have nothing to hide. If my career or earnings are negatively impacted by this article, I’m OK with that. I can’t put a price on my happiness. And I simply wouldn’t want to work for a boss or business who judged me by this. There are plenty of other things to judge me by! :o)
These are my experiences. The terms I use are mine, how I view myself and my life. They are short-hand ways of expressing myself. I would never suggest that people think of their own circumstances in these terms or tones.