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Workplace wellbeing

Monday, 20 January 2014 Kim

Kim talks about her fear of opening up about her mental health problems in the workplace and how a change of working environment now means she feels supported in her recovery.

In retrospect, my depression was probably lingering for many years before it took its hold on me. It started as a constant anxiety back in the summer of 2011 and I visited 3 different GP’s who confirmed that I was suffering from severe depression, and severe anxiety. I was too ashamed to take action, being quite sure that I would sort it out my own way. The illness took its grip, my thoughts turned suicidal and I was in crisis.

In those first 6 months of recovery I started medication, did very little, fought my destructive thought processes and had no hope of a future. Slowly, I started doing things that would have been simple before, such as driving and cooking dinner. When I was finally able to laugh a little, enjoy company and take pride in my appearance again, I felt I was coming back to life. 

In the months before all of this began, my workplace was a very difficult place to be. I had been in my current job role for around 4 months, working long hours and studying for a Masters part-time. My manager liked to micro-manage and was quick to lay blame and criticise. Despite my best efforts to stay fit, healthy, rested and happy I began to feel continuously lethargic and sad, finding it difficult to make decisions, to organise myself and my team, to think logically and find solutions to problems.

Colleagues suggested some practical tips and my manager did agree to lessen my workload. Unfortunately, it was all too little, and too late. I was too ashamed to speak up about the severity of my feelings for fear of being seen as weak and as less capable than my colleagues. All too often, employees are scared to tell their manager about a mental health problem and when they do, managers are unsure how best to support staff. 

My recovery has been long, slow and is continuous. In my current job role, the trust my manager shows me is vital to my being happy at work. Regular meetings with my line manager are also valuable to me, and give us a good chance to talk about my work but also how I’m feeling more generally. Knowing that my wellbeing is a top priority has made a big difference, as well as being able to take time off when I need to.

During my 6 month absence in my previous organisation, my line manager didn’t make any contact with me and I only had e-mail contact with human resources around providing fit-to-work notes from my surgery. As a result, I didn’t return to the organisation when I was well enough to work, so the cost to them was probably significant. I have since found out that my team were asked not to contact me, which at that vulnerable time only accentuated my feelings of worthlessness. 

I talk very openly about my depression and my battle with this illness in the hope that other people will at least be able to see that there is some light at the end of what can be a very dark tunnel. Company-wide wellness initiatives can have a fantastic impact on employee wellbeing but too often these don’t include an angle on mental health. Building a mental wellbeing strategy can lead to significant reductions in mental health-related sickness absence and better return to work rates following a period of absence. Employers are well placed to recognise warning signs and signpost their staff to support.

I am now in the final stages of completing my Masters in Occupational Psychology and am overwhelmed by the many ways research can inform us on how to best identify, intervene and support employees. 1 in 6 workers deal with a mental health problem such as anxiety, depression or stress and it costs British businesses over £1000 per employee every year or almost £30 billion across the UK economy. The wider economic costs of mental illness in England have been estimated at £105.2 billion each year. Open and supportive workplaces benefit everyone - employees, employers and the bottom line. It all starts with a conversation and Mind have so many resources available to help. 

Kim works and studies in London, and hopes to slowly move into research and consulting to advise organisations on how best we can help the 1 in 4 of us who suffer from mental health problems.

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