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Gardening, mental health and my positive workplace experience

Friday, 01 April 2016 Mary

Mary blogs on how being in the garden helps her to manage her bipolar disorder, and the support she's received from her employer.

I was diagnosed with bipolar during my second year at university, over ten years ago now. I had a severe mental collapse and within the space of a few months my not unreasonable ambition to become an academic – an historian – was replaced with the more modest aspiration to complete the basic tasks of daily life. The inside of my local hospital’s psychiatric ward became more familiar to me than the inside of lecture halls and libraries, first as an in-patient and later as a regular out-patient.

Debilitated as I was, the decision to leave university came as a relief. By some stroke of good fortune – though I didn’t realise it then – I decided to try gardening. Thus began five years of training. I had two years at college and three as an apprentice gardener. Towards the end of my apprenticeship I was sexually assaulted by an abusive boyfriend and spent my second and to date last stint in psychiatric hospital. Soon after this I applied for my current job in the garden of a country estate.

"What has made my present job such a significant part of my recovery and good mental health has been the part that my colleagues have played."

Working outdoors has definitely been very important to my mental well-being. The open space seems big enough to cope with my extreme interior life, both the struggles and joys. Gardening is a constant boost to my consciously nurtured optimism, as I am surrounded by the natural world which pursues life with eager enthusiasm. Moreover, anyone who works in a garden which is open to the public and has many volunteers knows that their works involves enabling others to experience the great benefits of a garden, which is very satisfying.  

I know however that working as a professional gardener is not a panacea; as an apprentice I experienced some pretty awful times when work was a hindrance not a help to my mental wellbeing. What has made my present job such a significant part of my recovery and good mental health has been the part that my colleagues have played.

Looking back, my interview at the garden was a fairly decisive point in my life. I said openly that I had a diagnosis of bipolar. The response from the man who was to become my boss was, “I don’t know much about that, but let me know how we can help”. Although I was in my mid-twenties then, my years of illness meant that I was new to permanent employment and new to any kind of role involving responsibility for others - my position involves managing a large team of volunteers. Without anything formally being put in place – no policies or paperwork on ‘How To Deal With A Person With Mental Health Problems In Your Workplace’ – I was mentored through the first few years by my boss. He helped me both with specific advice and with the knowledge of his support in developing the way to work through my personal challenges so that I could effectively fulfil the role’s requirements.

"In the busy-ness of the modern workplace, it takes a certain wisdom and generosity to be understanding and sympathetic towards someone with mental health problems."

From the start he had the ability to see me as a person and not just someone with a condition. Moreover, he saw my potential and especially in the early years was not afraid to push me: but he would preface any tough words by ensuring that I was not then going through a difficult time with my mental health. He is also one of the few people who will even now pause and say “Really?” after asking, “How are you?” if he is not convinced by my answer. He is also ready to hear the real answer, and to set me off again with some words of encouragement.

In the busy-ness of the modern workplace, it takes a certain wisdom and generosity to be understanding and sympathetic towards someone with mental health problems, and then to push them to achieve their potential. It’s all too easy for people to offer pity and not expect much, although this is better than receiving no sympathy at all! In my case the support of my boss has been in the context of reliable friendliness and support from my colleagues. On the surface it’s nothing spectacular though: the walls are not festooned with posters reminding employees to be decent to people who might be struggling.

However it’s been proved true by many people’s experiences that a workplace can be a very harsh environment. “Leave your problems at home when you come to work” is a maxim still widely accepted as the correct attitude. Yet, creating the best opportunities for people to flourish in the workplace can mean treating people differently because of the problems they have. Someone like me, with serious mental health issues, may well need more time and greater personal support than a typical employee. My boss recognised this even though he “didn’t know anything” about bipolar, but not everyone is so lucky.

Neither my boss nor my other colleagues would say they have done anything special by being patient, kind, and understanding. However, with this sort of support I have achieved more than I ever imagined possible when I was first ill. My life has moved on in many ways, and my support network has grown. I now have the luxury of being able to keep work as the place where I challenge myself to move forward and continue to fulfil my potential. For me, my workplace, my colleagues and my boss have been the inspiration for me to push through the barriers that a serious mental health problem can put in your life. With their support, I have achieved success in my present job in a way that I would have been very proud of back in the days I dreamed of being an academic. 

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