The good and bad of mental health support at work
Laura blogs about the huge differences in how two different employers supported her mental health.
Laura works as an analyst at Home Group, and is a crafter, cosplayer and goth. She lives with anxiety and depression.
It’s not something many people talk openly about with their friends, let alone their work colleagues. It’s something we talk about in hushed tones, when no one else is around to accidentally eavesdrop. We cover it up, tell everyone we’re “fine” and struggle through it, often alone and unsupported. Well, I’m not “fine” and I don’t consider it something I need to hide – I have a mental illness.
"The culture was “never say no” and all negative language was banned."
Six years ago I was working for a company that preferred to put its profits before its employees. The culture was “never say no” and all negative language was banned. We weren’t allowed to point out flaws or mistakes that had been made, regardless of where they came from, but if these were spotted by the company, we were blamed. And we were punished.
I found women from my team in the bathroom, crying. I once found a male team member hiding behind a vending machine, crying and refusing to go back to work.
At no point along this journey (which lasted seven years) did I think of myself as depressed. It all came to a head during a confrontation with my manager, which escalated to the point of being both verbally and physically aggressive from him and I emotionally collapsed as a result. From that point onwards I couldn't find it in me to so much as get out of bed in the morning, knowing I had to speak to other people.
I knew then what was happening to me, so I went to see my GP and was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.I was signed off for several weeks and hoped that having so obviously broken under the strain, that changes would be made, but I was naïve.My manager made no effort to understand how mental illness affects a person and made no concessions.
Because of the culture in the business, I realised there was no way management would ever acknowledge that anything was wrong. Anyone who went on the sick for stress were openly mocked by some managers, who believed people to be faking it for some extra time off.
I ended up leaving as a result – I stuck it out until I found another job and got out of there as quickly as I could and landed on my feet, quite spectacularly.
"I’ve never felt ashamed or embarrassed of how I am here - I’ve always been open with my team about it and they’ve never judged me for it."
My new work culture at Home Group is the complete opposite of anything I’ve experienced before. When I started, I found myself being very open about my anxiety and depression, in order to help others going through similar experiences. I have such a good relationship with my manager that I feel safe in saying that I just can’t “do” a day and he’s very understanding.
I’ve never felt ashamed or embarrassed of how I am here - I’ve always been open with my team about it and they’ve never judged me for it. I’ve even joined groups within the company that openly discuss mental health issues – it’s good to know that there are other people that feel how you do.
Knowing that there are other people who can stand for you on your worst days, who support you and that you can return the favour is comforting. So stop the whispers, stop hiding and start talking. You may have a mental illness, but there’s nothing wrong with that or with you. The change starts with us, speaking out, offering or asking for help, or simply telling one other person that you are not “fine”.
This might sound scary, but remember – if you’re living with mental illness, you are already stronger than you ever thought you could be.
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Blogs and stories can show that people with mental health problems are cared about, understood and listened to. We can use it to challenge the status quo and change attitudes.