March 7, 2016

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 17. This is what I’ve learnt, over nearly 15 years of full-time work, about managing a mental illness alongside a demanding and stressful career.

  1. ‘I have’, not ‘I am’

When I was first diagnosed with bipolar, it became my life. At the moment, my mental health is the best it’s ever been. There is so much more to me than my diagnosis.

  1. Shame can make logical people seem irrational

There is so much stigma about mental illness. If you feel like part of who you are will lead to colleagues assuming you’re not capable of doing your job, you keep it private. That’s why the culture of an organisation makes such a huge difference to my work life. With the right support, I can thrive but in a blame culture, I wilt.

  1. Managing anxiety and stress is like a second job

Sometimes, I feel like I have two full-time jobs. The one I’m paid for, and the one I do to manage my mental health. My brain has taken on the job of an anti-virus software package, monitoring my stress levels and making sure they don’t reach a critical stage. It means I don’t have to worry about getting so stressed that I might end up in the early stages of mania. This self-management strategy has become routine over the years, and fortunately my moods rarely reach that ‘amber’ level any more.

  1. Kindness and empathy: yes. Pity: heck, no.

The best managers I’ve had have had the following qualities: good listeners, prepared to see the best in people, encouraging, open to lateral thinking and not overly risk averse. Doesn’t sound too much to ask, does it? For most people, a bad manager doesn’t affect their health. Yet if I don’t get the right support, I struggle to do a good job. That’s the difference good management makes.

What no-one wants is pity, because that’s crushing. Mental illness can be like Kryptonite to self-esteem. There have been times when I felt I was being handled by my employer with kid gloves, as if I was an unexploded bomb that might go off at any moment. That can lead to a vicious cycle of low expectation equalling poor performance. Being a good manager means being able to have difficult conversations. I’d far rather a manager found a tactful way to be honest with negative feedback than shied away from confrontation.

  1. Talking about it helps

The English reluctance to talk about our feelings is infamous. A lot of people would seemingly rather wax their own legs than talk about their feelings at work. But how we feel has a huge bearing on our output. Otherwise, sports psychologists who coach top athletes would be out of a job. Just being about to talk about mental health at work and it not be a big deal is a huge release. Because the more we talk about it, the less of a big deal it becomes.

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