I'd like to talk about my experiences with work, good and bad. The reaction of a manager to your disclosure of mental health difficulties can really make a difference to the way you feel and how open you’ll be with future employers.
I have had anxiety for as long as I can remember. I’ve been diagnosed with panic disorder. Over the years my anxiety has had peaks and troughs and I’ve needed to tell my managers about it.
The good bosses have been flexible, empathetic and supportive. They've given me time off for appointments and also given me the chance to just not do something, no questions asked if I’m having a bad day. One manager gave me the option to just take a day off if I needed it. She suggested a walk on the beach would be much more productive than anxiously clock watching at my desk. I never took that day but knowing I could really helped. I didn’t need an ‘excuse’ to be off work. A lot of my anxiety is caused by feeling forced to do something. Situations where I can’t escape are the worst. So the thought that I could just not go in one day was something I really held onto.
Not all workplaces are set up to be able to offer a day off like that of course. Having to option to break something up into smaller chunks, change a deadline or swap a project with someone else has also helped. One of my jobs was as a trainer and I knew I could ask my manager to run some parts of the training if I didn’t want to. We’d often swap things around so it didn’t feel strange if either of us decided to change it at the last minute.
The bad bosses have tried to be overly controlling, they've wanted all the details and have been full of ‘useful’ suggestions. I don’t need to be told what to do. I know all this stuff, sometimes I need to remind myself but I know what works. Worse, I had one boss who just took all my work away. I had far too much to do and so I raised this, I also mentioned I was feeling anxious. She then started taking work away or just not asking me to do things. I was already feeling like I couldn’t do my job and she just confirmed that for me. On top of my anxiety I now started to worry about losing my job. I was at work but with nothing to do, I wasn’t doing the job they employed me for.
That same boss also used to make me meet with them regularly. I’m sure she thought she was being helpful. There’s nothing worse than being forced to talk about your anxiety when you’re trying to keep functioning. It’s fine to ask someone if they are ok but asking for constant updates on their anxiety levels, calling them into meetings and making them talk about it just increases anxiety.
Everyone is different, and so is each bout of anxiety – I can sit next to my husband having a full on panic attack and it’s not even obvious to him. Some days if that happens I can take a deep breath and get on, other days I’ll need to talk it through, sometimes just a short break for a cup of tea will break that panic cycle for me. It’s not always the same, sometimes it even surprises me. Ask people how their anxiety presents and what works for them but be prepared if it’s not what you expected.