Self-harm and the workplace
Posted Wednesday 18 May 2011
I started working for a supermarket chain as a temp initially. I had been working in warehouses, sweeping up and doing other manual jobs — cleaning, putting boxes together, things that didn’t really require much effort on my part — but this job was in an office, and for a few months at least. I needed the money, and I figured an office would be warmer, plus the hours were 12 noon to 8pm so I didn’t have to get up first thing.
It was a good job. I could sit down, and the people were nice: for a long time I managed as well as I ever did. I was cutting semi-regularly when I started, and continued to do so. I was also in therapy when I started, and went every Friday. My employer was pretty good about letting me go; I had Fridays off, and worked the Sunday shift instead. I got a permanent job in the office, and continued to be able to take Fridays off for therapy.
I disclosed some of my mental health problems to my supervisor when I came on board permanently, though I wasn’t sure whether I should or not. My mum said I shouldn’t, because they would refuse me the job, but I figured it wasn’t likely — I had been there for three months already, had been offered the job, the forms and contracts asking for my health history were a formality. I kept working in the office, doing the 12 noon - 8pm shift, going to therapy weekly, and continued to cut. My bosses knew about my anxiety and depression, but only that I suffered.
I managed to cope quite well for the first few months. Cope with the work, getting there on time, and the people (about 100 worked there, only eight of us were women) — the social interaction was the most difficult bit. The job was easy, answering the phones (which I hated, but it got easier over time) and data entry on a system older than me.
After a while it got harder. I started to work too hard, doing too much overtime, working long hours, arguing with people, managers. After I had been there three years, I stopped therapy (it didn’t help much) and was on the maximum dose of Seroxat. I was also on Tegretol to regulate my moods, after one of my disagreements with a manager got out of hand. I was cutting regularly at work and taking a couple of weeks off at a time as my depression and anxiety worsened.
The disagreement with the manager ended up with me going through disciplinary action at work. I was lucky, because without my employer knowing my history, I don’t think they would’ve understood that it wasn’t necessarily me that blew up that day, but my mental health taking a nose dive.
I kept my job and explained that my psychiatrist had put me on more medication. If I hadn’t had told them about my preexisting mental health conditions, I would’ve been out of a job. I’ve seen people fired for much less than swearing at a manager (and some other things).
I was cutting at work most days, for various reasons. I hid the cutting quite well. People knew I had cut, because I went through a good period where I didn’t do it for months and could show my arms and the scars. However, once I started cutting again, I hid it well. I’d been cutting for years at this point and was pretty good at hiding it.
My supervisor worried about me, a couple of the managers too. Some people stared at the scars, some people avoided looking entirely. It was the same as if I had been walking about in town.
I don’t know if anyone knew I was cutting at work. I hid it, of course, but I was spending a lot of time in the toilets, moving my arms very carefully. No one said anything about the self-harm, if they knew, just the other aspects of my mental health, the panic attacks and depression.
I had panic attacks at work too. I would often sit in the managers' office or in the meeting room, in the quiet, until I calmed down again. I had panic attacks for various reasons — some work-related, some not, some for no reason whatsoever.
When I realised I was doing too much work, my employers were helpful. I was able to change shifts slightly, and I tried this twice, although it didn’t make a difference. The job was pretty much the same morning or evening: same supervisors, same managers, and while I liked the job, and the people, and the shifts (once I was working sensible hours), it didn’t really make much of a difference. Which is why I don’t work now.
I left this workplace officially in April 2010, but stopped working there around October 2009. I was cutting every day, taking non-fatal overdoses (called para-suicide), drinking, panicking regularly and my mood was terrible, despite the medication and therapy I'd had earlier.
I left work and went into full-time therapy, five days a week, for a full year at a therapeutic community. I had to really try to change things. I couldn’t keep going on as I was; eventually I would’ve ended up killing myself. It was the best decision I’ve made for years, and now I’m back in Wales, near my family, I rarely drink, I haven’t taken an overdose for over a year and have cut once in 18 months.
Whether I will work again is another matter, I don’t know how well I am, or if I will end up taking huge steps backwards in my mental health. The anxiety and depression are still prevalent, and I’m scared of ending up on some toilet floor, cutting again in the middle of the work day.
I would certainly divulge my mental health to prospective employers, as my experience at my last workplace was quite positive. I am big believer in talking about mental health problems and trying to reduce the stigma around it all, especially self-harm.
This post was originally published on Rhian's blog.
Need advice or information?
- Self-harm - Mind info and advice
- Dealing with mental health issues at work - Mind advice
- Stress, depression and mental health support at work - guidance and resources from Time to Change
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