The issue of mental health in the workplace has become a common topic of HR discussion, blogging and print media in the last year or so, which is a Really Good Thing. There is a long way to go when it comes to getting the management and understanding of mental health embedded in the workplace, particularly in the UK’s SME market, but the journey has begun.
I have a fair amount of experience with dealing with mental health issues both from a personal angle – having had my own fight with depression and seen those close to me in their own battles – and from a professional one, having been aware of colleagues struggling through mental health issues over many years. So as Christmas approaches – a time that can be especially challenging for those with mental health issues – I thought I would dedicate a few of my blogs to various aspects of mental health at work and this first one is going to touch upon the steps you to remember to help yourself stay productive while living with mental illness.
1. Mental illness is a thing in itself, not a symptom of other things. When you’re inside the experience of mental illness it can feel like it’s caused by the experiences around you: your inability to do that thing; your being late; the fact that you spilt your morning espresso on your shirt; the thing you said to that person that one time… It’s not. Your mental illness is a lens through which you perceive those other things. The fact that you are at work and doing things, in spite of your illness, is a sign of your strength and ability to overcome obstacles to achieve. Oh, and by the way: the ability to overcome obstacles and achieve is something your employer values.
2. Even though it’s a thing, other people can’t see your illness. When it feels so very real, it seems impossible to you that your symptoms can’t be seen. But other people are wrapped up in their own lives. They won’t notice your shaking hand. They won’t spot the scratches on your wrists. They can’t hear the screaming in your head. And the more you are coping with your work, the less they will notice your illness. So if the people around you seem oblivious to your suffering, take it as a sign that, however bad it feels, you’re still doing good work. Also, you need to tell someone that you have a mental illness. Ideally, this will be your line manager or some other business leader whom you trust. You may be able to help them to learn more about what those with mental illness need in the way of support. But in any case, if you don’t tell your employer that you have a chronic illness, you won’t benefit from the protection of the Equalities Act 2010 should they come to take action against you for absence or poor performance.
3. Even though it’s a thing, you can’t see another person’s illness. Statistically speaking, you’re not alone. One in three of us will suffer from some form of chronic mental illness during our lifetimes and the figure may be higher even than that. So when you look around your business, there’s a good chance that you’re not as alone as you think. And because there’s a strong correlation between some forms of success and mental illness (particularly anxiety and bipolar disorders) it may even be the top people, the ones who seem to have everything together and who are living, breathing embodiments of secular success who are the most likely to be keeping you company in carrying around their own black dogs.
4. Your coping strategies are valid and deserve to be articulated. We all have coping strategies. It might be chocolate, coffee, doodling, Internet browsing, catching up on Facebook, writing a blog (yes, folks, this is one of mine), listening to music or any one of a thousand possibilities and more. But we leave many of them unarticulated so, when we’re doing them, we tell ourselves we’re being lazy or that we’re procrastinating, and we feel guilty. More importantly, if others see us doing them at work, they may think the same thing. Articulating them means acknowledging what they are, how much of them you need for it to help and how often you need to do them. By doing this, we can achieve several things. First, we validate our coping strategies for what they are: valid methods we use for getting through the day. Second, we recognize that there are limits to how often and for how long we should do them before they stop being coping strategies and actually become procrastinating. Third, we give ourselves a clearly demarcated plan to share with those who know about our illness that counts as “reasonable adjustments” under the law.
There are probably other things that you could learn, do or remember that will help you with your particular battle. And the fact that these ones are in a blog on the Internet doesn’t make them more valid or more effective than your own. But I’ve learned these through my own experience and those with whom I’m shared these thoughts – whose struggles have been far harder and far more heroic than mine – have told me that they were true and helpful.
Ultimately, I’m just standing on the side of the road, shouting encouragement, while you’re the one running the marathon. But marathon runners will tell you how much those shouts and support matters, and next time I’ll come back to the workplace and touch upon some of the the whys and hows for SMEs and mental health.