I spent 3 years trying to prove that I wasn’t a failure and trying not to admit that I might be, by forcing myself to keep quiet about my depression at work. I felt that the stigma towards mental health in the workplace was a huge problem, you would hear people gossiping over coffee about Janet in Accounts who had been signed off “AGAIN!” but, they were adamant there wasn’t anything actually wrong with her because she “looked fine”. If I was given a £1 every time somebody said “but, you look fine!” I would be very rich! It’s not easy to present yourself as a successful happy go lucky individual every day. And while most people have a bad day, miss a deadline or have a meeting that doesn’t go so well, when they go home they don’t beat themselves up as hard as I did. I would convince myself that I hadn’t performed well enough, that I had failed, which I still do now to some extent. I would then add that failure to my long list of ‘failings’ that just seemed to keep growing.
My coping technique is to distract myself with work. I was trying all the time to achieve perfection at work. But, what I was really doing was trying to not let my colleagues see that; a) sometimes I wasn’t perfect and b) sometimes I didn’t like myself and c) I suffer from depression. So I would pretend depression didn’t exist. I look back and think to myself, would most people really judge me if I was open about my depression?
Having had 4 different line managers throughout my 6 years in my job I have had experienced a range of management styles.
Manager 1 – 1.5 Years
My first “Proper” job, my first manager. She was lovely, but couldn’t really afford to spend the time managing as such. I was completely overwhelmed, I had no idea if I was performing as expected. Then the dreaded symptom of depression; procrastination set in, and before I knew it I was out of my depth. I was a complete failure in work and outside of work. I finally got the courage to talk to her about my situation, and she then contacted HR and Occupational Health to see if there was anything they could do. There was a waiting list for counselling and I would have to be triaged. It was very soon after the initial meeting that I hit rock bottom and I got signed off by the doctor.
Manager 2 – 2 Years
She was my work mother! She supported me through my first depressive episode at work. I returned to work after 3 months leave unsure whether I had a job to come back to. I worked my socks off to pull myself out of the drop zone and with her support I did it. Yes, she micromanaged me and that doesn’t suit everyone. But, when you are offered support you should take it. I can honestly say that without her support and guidance I wouldn’t be where I am now.
Manager 3 – 2 Years
He openly admitted after a few months that he wasn’t a people person. Brilliant! The support I received was limited. He couldn’t understand my situation and often said “what could you be depressed about?” “you’re not old enough!” I would always request leave for medical appointments or working from home days for therapy in advance, I would ensure they were in his calendar and I would even remind him the day before. He would always make a point of saying “did I approve this, I can’t remember you asking, what is it for again? Therapy or happy med review?” I always felt that my situation was never taken seriously.
Manager 4 – Current Manager
When I applied for my current job I ended my interview by asking what their approach was regarding mental health. Both my interviewers both suffer with mental health issues. My manager thankfully is very understanding and has offered so much support in the short time I have been in her team. We looked at workplace adjustments, flexibility in working hours/location, we went through my list of triggers and my safety plan. If I am concerned about my performance, I raise it with her and she is happy to sit down and discuss my concerns and put me at ease.
I manage my life in two different ways, so my life is in two halves. So the first half can be when I’m suffering from depression, and that’s all about getting on with daily tasks, so the smallest daily tasks can seem like a huge mountain to climb. So just getting out of bed in the morning can seem a difficult challenge. The other half of my life is spent managing my mental health, so when I’m not suffering from the illness, I’m actively managing it, looking for the symptoms that I’ve learnt to identify over the years, and that can dictate my choices every day, from the diet I choose to the exercise I choose to do and my social activities. I’ve found that a combination of medication and therapy, plus the support of my partner is all the support that I need.
I would definitely encourage other people to talk about their mental health, whether they’re having good mental health or bad mental health at the time, it always helps to talk to people, and especially at work with people that you see probably more often than family and friends, most of the time, because we all spend six, seven hours at work a day, and there’s nothing wrong with saying that you’re struggling. It’s beneficial to everybody to have good mental health, especially at work. I had to go through such a lot to get my treatment in the first place, but now I have a diverse toolbox of therapies, and there’s a lot more help available, so I’d just advise people to talk to others and get the help that they need.
Employers need to create a safe environment to allow employees to speak up if they are not coping and ensure they receive a rational response which is ‘how can we help?’ because with a little bit of help and less judgement, they can help. They can tell you that you’re doing a great job, that not everything has to be brilliant and that you are meeting their expectations. Re-structuring workload and work hours can seriously help to get a person back on track.
I work for a Global Organisation. Over the last few years there has been an increased amount of focus on MH in the workplace. They launched “The Mental Health Focus Group” in 2013 before the launch of ‘This Is Me’, the mental health awareness campaign that resulted in my company signing the ‘Time To Change’ pledge. The group’s main purpose is to monitor how the support for colleagues is working and to continue to embed acceptance and understanding across the organisation. The group provides a network of contacts that can help us eradicate stigma and improve outcomes for those colleagues with mental health conditions.