October 9, 2013

Living with some fairly colourful mental health challenges over most of my working life has meant I’ve developed a good understanding of how my colleagues’ perceive mental health issues and indeed deal with their own.

A couple of years back a work mate was really struggling. His workload and responsibilities were getting to him and I could sense he was under pressure. He became much quieter and detached from his colleagues and clearly didn’t want to openly discuss his issues.

Eventually he went to the GP and started to address things. But what really saddened me was how a couple of senior staff responded to this. Independently from each other they both explained to me…’it’s ok, he’s not ill, he’s just stressed; he needs to toughen up’.

This just simply re-affirmed the uncertainties and stigma attached to mental health in the workplace, and how we often fail to deal with the causes before it’s too late.

Am I going mad?

My own issues had started about ten years ago. I didn’t talk to anyone at the time either. Emotionally I was all over the place. I was stressed and depressed. I had a busy, stressful job, a young family and my first mortgage. I didn’t know how to get on top of the situation. It continued to develop and my symptoms increased. I started to experience chronic anxiety and panic attacks; and this frightened the life out of me at the time.

‘Am I going mad?’ I would ask myself.

Things came to a head when I had a massive panic attack in front of several colleagues whilst chairing a high profile meeting. Wow…the embarrassment, confusion and emotion was crippling, but at least it dawned on me I needed help!

I went to my GP who assured me…’I know you’re not going mad sir. If you were losing your mind you wouldn’t be so self-aware’ he said. This actually really helped me.

Acceptance and openness - Taking the pressure off

Starting to open up to my work colleagues was a massive breakthrough for me but what a difficult breakthrough to make. All kinds of thoughts went through my head…’they’ll be laughing behind my back, think I’m being soft, being lazy, weak etc’…

I knew it was my only way forward though. What had dawned on me was that I could never beat my issues by masking them. It was absolutely exhausting trying to remain calm on the exterior whilst struggling like mad on the inside. I couldn’t continue the act any longer. I had to face up to my issues and learn to accept them.

I’d been off work for a while so people knew things weren’t right. Naturally they started to ask me how I felt.

I started to explain I was experiencing anxiety, panic and stress issues and that life was a struggle at times but I was learning to deal with them and not hide away.

This acceptance and openness released a massive amount of pressure off me from trying to permanently portray that cool, calm and confident professional that we often pressurise ourselves to be.

What also amazed me was how many others opened up about their issues once provoked. This often created such a positive experience for both of us. Listening to each other’s issues, sharing stories and experiences (often quite humorous on reflection!) and ideas on dealing with issues in our working lives.

Others perhaps didn’t understand, or perhaps felt uncomfortable. That’s absolutely fine. At least I’ve been honest with them, they are aware of my challenges and I’ve also raised awareness of mental health in the workplace. All positives!

I can’t articulate in the blog enough just how important talking through and sharing your issues with colleagues is. For me, it really does take the pressure off from trying to be someone who I’m not. What I am is a professional businessman who lives with anxiety, panic and stress challenges. Sometimes they impact my work life but that’s absolutely fine. They can be managed and I’m comfortable with that.

I don’t expect everyone to understand my issues, I just ask for acceptance. If they can’t accept it then they’re the one with the problems, not me.

My ultimate point to all this is we must collectively (employees and employers) look to continuously and proactively address the causes of mental health in the workplace. It’s an old cliché but prevention is so much better than cure when it comes to mental health.

It’s time to talk and listen about mental health

It’s time to understand and learn

It’s time to fight and beat it!

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