Have you ever heard people at work open up a conversation about their childhood with - "yeah I grew up in Bristol, had a normal childhood, in and out of CAMHs, nearly died, oh and when I was 17 I spent a year living in a mental health hospital.”
For most of you reading this the answer will be no, but for at least 1 in 4 of you, you will have experienced some sort of problem similar to this maybe when you were a child, at uni or as you reached adulthood.
The stigma associated with mental health makes it so hard to talk about and to get the support you may need in a working environment. I want to share with you some tips to help you cope with living with mental health problems when you are at work.
But first a bit about me. The above quote is about me - I struggled with anorexia for much of my childhood, and after trying to get well with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) there was no other choice but to be admitted as an in-patient to a mental health hospital. Does this make me weird? Less employable? Less deserving of a job? No, but there is a constant fear of mine and being extremely career driven I worry about things like this. This is probably why I very rarely open up about my history with mental health. But interestingly, once you start talking about it, not only do things get better and easier to handle at work, but you realise the amount of people who have been in similar experiences, or who know others with mental health problems. It’s pretty staggering. I am not suggesting you openly broadcast this in an office, but opening up with the right people and especially your manager is vital.
For everyone who has a mental health problem there will most likely be different fears that come up for you. For me when I first got a job when I was 21 it was about eating out for lunches both with colleagues and with clients, and not being able to fit in my exercise. However now at 26 I know I am in a completely different place and here's how I do it:
1. Talk about my mental health as and when I feel it is appropriate. If we want to break the stigma of mental health we need to ensure that people talk about it. It needs to be possible to openly talk about mental health like it is to talk about physical health.
2. Plan ahead - if I know I have a manic week at work I think about when I can fit my exercise in, and doing shorter but more intense sessions works.
Remember you can always talk to your boss or colleagues when you think it's appropriate or will be useful.
3. I know you will have days when the last thing you want to do is be at work when you feel this awful, let alone get out of bed. But try! I have had days when I have given up but it doesn't make me feel any better. Instead I feel guilty for not making the effort - this will hugely depend on where you are in your recovery but I have people that I can send a text to if I can't face the day and they will always support me. If you do manage it into work, make a list of things to achieve that day. Then reward yourself at the end of the day!
4. Talk to your manager if you feel it will be useful - this may be particularly important if you are changing medication so that they can be more flexible around the side effects or let you take longer a lunch break to go for a walk or a run, and then you can do more at the end of the day. This isn't necessarily for everyone but it can be useful.
5. The Mind website has some excellent resources that you can read and maybe run through with your manager if you think it would be help.
6. If food is an issue and you worry about client meetings or colleague lunches there are a few things you could try: pick where you eat with colleagues; at client meetings have some bits on your plate; don't over think it as no one else is looking; and as long as you have enough in the day it doesn't matter if you have a bit more or less at that point.
7. Take time out for yourself in the evenings and the weekends if you are struggling. If you live in London this could mean walking a few stops on the tube to help you reflect on the day.
8. Know what things in work don't help your mental health.
9. If you can't face a day and you try to go to work but fail because you are struggling don't beat yourself up over it but take some time for yourself. Maybe take the day or afternoon to adjust and then try again the next day. This may be more common if you have started taking medication as some side effects include issues around sleep and less motivation so again it might be worth talking to someone you trust at work about this if it begins to become a regular occurrence.
10. Do not be ashamed of having a mental health problem.
I hope some of these tips help you. I know it can be really scary when you have had a mental health problem - the fear it will come back, the fear that if people will find out you won't get picked for that promotion you wanted. But the more we talk about mental health and the more we right the stigma the better it gets.