Talking about mental health in the workplace is an incredibly daunting and frightening step to take. Thoughts swirl around your head as you wonder whether being open about a subject, that is so stigmatised, will be detrimental to your career or your working relationship; “will colleagues treat you differently? Will it affect your chance of progression? Will you even have a job left!?”
I kept my anxiety and depression concealed from my employer for as long as I possibly could for those exact reasons. It was only when I got to breaking point that I finally had a conversation with my manager - Ruth. Luckily for me, she has been incredible in supporting me over the last 18 months and this has been a significant factor in my recovery.
The stereotypes which I most feared being tarnished with because of my anxiety were that I “must get worried about everything all the time” and that I “couldn’t cope”.
I was concerned that my manager’s reaction would be to immediately take more demanding work away from me and to halt my development. That was not what I wanted at all.
I didn’t want any fuss, any adjustments or anyone else to know. All I wanted was for Ruth to be aware of my situation because I felt that my behaviour at work was becoming obviously different; I wasn’t joining in conversations, I was struggling to focus and my time-keeping became erratic. I wanted Ruth to understand that my workload wasn’t causing my anxiety and that, actually, keeping as much normality in my working life as possible, at a time of massive mental turmoil, was key for me.
Fortunately Ruth understood and always made sure that decisions about my work were made in partnership. Just the simple fact that I could have an ‘off-day’ with my anxiety and that Ruth was aware of what was going on, without having to have another conversation, really took the pressure off me. Looking back, I wish I’d spoken to her sooner because bottling up how I was feeling and pretending to always be okay was exhausting.
As a result of Ruth’s support, I’ve come on leaps and bounds with my mental health and confidence over the past year. She gave me the space and conditions that I needed to turn things around. She took the pressure off me without altering my workload or treating me differently to the rest of the team. She encouraged me to go to my employers’ counselling service and gave me the time off to do this. She understood what I was going through and always retained belief in me. I can’t thank her enough for that.
Consequently, over the past year I have really embraced myself and have become increasingly comfortable in who I am. This led me to take the decision to share my mental health story across the entire organisation to try and encourage others, who may be struggling, to seek help. I have raised money for charity, designed and delivered mental health talks for colleagues and have also put a comprehensive business case forward to my organisation’s directors on steps they should take to ensure better mental wellbeing – including signing the Time to Change Employer Pledge!
Everything which I have done has been so well received by colleagues and I have been overwhelmed by the support I have received.
People have approached me to talk about their mental health and I’ve been told by a couple of colleagues that they have sought out counselling because I’ve made them feel more comfortable in doing so.
The transition I’ve been through over the past 18 months has been incredible and I am so glad that I can now help others to seek help. I wouldn’t be in a position to do so, however, if Ruth had not supported me. I hope my story highlights to employers just what can be achieved if they take simple steps to support the wellbeing of their staff.
Having a mental health condition does not mean a person cannot succeed in their career. In fact, my experiences have made me even more determined to do so.