Mental Health & the Workplace

Today is World Mental Health Day.  World Mental Health Day is observed on 10 October every year, with the overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues and mobilizing efforts in support of better mental health.  This year, the theme is 'mental health is the workplace.'  The World Health Organisation estimate that over $1 trillion a year are lost in the global economy to absenteeism and decreased levels of productivity due to mental health conditions. 

There are many stats and case examples I could share to demonstrate the impact that a negative work environment can have on your mental health, but instead, I have decided to share my own.  This has been a very difficult post to write but I hope that by sharing it I can lessen the isolation and pain of another person, and, in quite a selfish way, my own.

I had no intention of discussion names or places in relation to this story.  This is not a whistleblower piece and I do not work at this company anymore.  It is merely an example of how when we discuss the abuse and manipulation of the vulnerable in relationships, we must extend the conversation to include those with mental health conditions and the treatment of them in work place.

There are so many stories I could tell about how I, and in fact many of my colleagues were treated, at this place of employment but I would be here all day.  So below is some of the brief examples I could share:

  • I was not allowed to have my phone on my desk and was made to lock it in a drawer

  • I was followed to, and pulled out of the bathroom when I was required at my desk

  • I was not allowed to leave the building on my lunch break without saying where I was going

  • I was messaged out of hours, on holiday and on sick days

  • I was divided from my colleagues and told not to socialise with them

  • I was questioned intently when I did

  • I was given raises and gifts any time I raised my concern about how I was treated

Reading this back this you could be made to believe I was talking about an abusive partner rather than an employer.  As with many abusive relationships I was told that I was excellent at my job, that they had always struggled to fill this role because they had failed to find someone like me, and so I tolerated the abuse, saw it as constructive criticisms of my clear failings.  I had felt for years that my mental health had stopped me performing at the level I knew that I was capable of.  I have always felt that I have never pursued possible career options and opportunities open to me because I assumed that I could not cope.  The ostensibly positive comments from my boss that I was excellent made me feel that I finally was achieving something.  I was a puppy that would happily accept the tid bits it was being given, even after I had been smacked repeatedly on the nose.  I was desperate for the validation and so I kept trying to please them.

The reality of course was that I couldn't.  They were a bottomless pit of need and no matter what I did it would never be enough.  But that did not stop me trying.  I woke up every day exhausted.  I would weep onto my fiance's shoulder because I couldn't face leaving the house.  When he would suggest I called in sick I told him it would be so much worse for me if I did.  I would feel my chest tighten every time my phone went off.  I would spend all day Saturday asleep, trying to recuperate from the week and then all day Sunday gripped with the fear of the week to come.  I lasted just over a year of this before I knew that I had to leave.  

I had been on the phone to my boss where he was yelling at me.  I was silently crying when I absentmindedly took the scissors off of my desk and started to pull the blades across my forearms, something I had not even considered doing for the 10 previous years.  I looked down at my arms, left my office and called my mum. I was utterly inconsolable and when she could finally understand what I was saying she told me to pack up my things, go home and get signed off work for stress.  After speaking to my doctor the following day she told me to self certify for 7 days (legally in the UK you can sign yourself sick off work for 7 days before requiring confirmation from your doctor).  I went into work, handed in my notice and told them I was going on sick leave.  Whilst I was away they hired my replacement and told me I wasn't required to return for the remainder of my notice period and not to come back.  My colleagues had no idea where I had gone.  I couldn't even go into the building to collect my things.

If you would like to know the kicker in all of this, here it is: my boss knew about my mental health condition.  I had decided when I first took the job to be honest about my experiences and how it would not stop me working hard, but I wanted him to be conscious of my reactions to intense stress.  His response at the time was 'you seemed so pulled together; you just don't seem like the anxious sort.'  I later found a email he had written talking about the 'depression club' that occurred when more than one member of staff talked openly about dealing with a mental health condition.

This is not a cautionary tale against telling your employer about your mental health condition.  It is something that I still powerfully advocate.  I did it where I currently work and could not be surrounded by more understanding and empathetic people.  Mental health is part of the conversation here and I could not be more grateful.  It is to demonstrate two things:

Firstly, the need for ongoing education and regulation of employers in regards to mental health.  My bosses response to my disclosure of a mental health condition demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding and when I attempted to raise the issue with the regulatory body for the company I was told that it was not their responsibility to control how staff were treated.  This is simply unacceptable.

Secondly, no matter what, it is never ever ok to allow your mental health to decline because of the behaviour of your employer or colleagues. You do not deserve to be treated that way and It. Is. Not. Your. Fault. Speak to family, friends, trusted colleagues or an mental health advocacy body, but please do not suffer in silence for as long as I did.