January 10, 2017

Yesterday, Prime Minister Theresa May announced plans to tackle the stigma and discrimination around mental health in schools and the workplace. Read the full speech and Time to Change's response. If you'd like to change the way mental health is treated in your workplace, find out what you can do


An intense prickling sensation suddenly shot up both arms. I felt sick, my vision was going blurry and I thought I might faint. My heart was pounding out of my chest and I felt a cold sweat coming on. I tried to carry on typing but couldn't focus on the screen. I couldn't work. But I couldn't leave the office either. Not on my own. Because I was scared I might die alone.

Having a panic attack in the workplace is a lonely and scary position to find yourself in - especially if you can't tell anyone about it. I can only imagine that people living with other forms of mental illness feel the same at times. Often, the reason you can't tell anyone about it boils down to shame, stigma and a fear of losing your job.

This is why I welcome yesterday's announcement by Theresa May that employers will be given more training to support staff around mental health issues.

I have generalised anxiety disorder. Looking back, I think my first panic attack was aged around seven or eight. The first time I actually knew I was having a panic attack I was 16. So I had been living with this intermittent threat of intense fear long before I landed my first job.

At home, when panic strikes in the middle of the night, I wake my husband. I truly believe that if I don't, and I head downstairs to watch TV to try and calm myself down, I could die there alone. Similarly, when I was a kid, I had to wake my mum and have her sit with me until the horror had passed.

As an adult, dealing with this totally alone makes me feel like a frightened child. And that is how I have previously felt in the workplace from time to time.

Don't get me wrong, there have always been one or two people I have confided in, and they have been incredibly supportive. But it's about more than that. It's about the culture of an organisation and how it makes you feel. You might be worried because there's a major restructure going on and you're scared of showing signs of 'weakness' and being seen as dead wood. Or scared that you won't be taken seriously when you raise concerns about your workload in case your manager thinks it's just you not being able to handle the pressure. You might feel guilty about taking longer lunch breaks or early flyers to attend an appointment with a counsellor (can I really take time out to have a chat and a cup of tea with someone?)

When we spoke on the Victoria Derbyshire Show yesterday, Time to Change media volunteer, Beth, stated that she actually lost her job after disclosing her mental health diagnosis to her employer. It's not uncommon. I've experienced negative responses to my illness in the past, and have at times felt that it was used against me.

But not all employers are like that. I feel incredibly lucky to work for Home Group, a social enterprise, charity and one of the UK’s largest providers of quality housing and supported housing services. The organisation also manages a number of mental health services across the country. I felt my anxiety sneaking up on me again a few months ago. I informed HR and my line manager, I was provided with a confidential helpline number where I was able to speak immediately to a professional counsellor, and I had texts and phone calls from at least three colleagues during the time I was off.

The result? I returned to work happy and well after three days. In previous employment, I have had to wait around three months to see a counsellor through occupational health and have ended up being off sick for up to six weeks.

Having mental health expertise within my current organisation might sound like a luxury. But I guess that is where Theresa May's announcement comes in - all employers should have a degree of training and an understanding about mental illness.

But how do you know when it's safe to disclose your mental health problem to your employer? How do you know when an organisation is going to be supportive? I think this is where employers need to take responsibility and lead the way. They need to be proactive and positive and shout about it more. But not only that, they need to find ways to back up what they are saying - through the support packages they offer, peer support initiatives and open conversations.

Last Friday, after lunch, I felt a bit wobbly and faint. I felt panic creeping in. My throat felt like it had something stuck in it. I told a Home Group colleague who invited me to go out for a breath of fresh air and a natter. She then gave me one of her peppermint teas from the personal tuck shop she keeps in her desk drawer (she's very popular!).The panic quickly subsided. The lump in my throat gradually disappeared. I managed to get more work done. I was gone for just five minutes.

But I shouldn't feel lucky to work in this kind of environment, this kind of culture. This is what every workplace should be like. As standard.

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