5 Things I Wish My Employers Knew About Anxiety


I have been wanting to write this for a while — for three months, in fact. The thing is, however, that between my anxiety and my first foray into the workplace, I haven’t been all that together lately. Coming into the world of work (as they keep telling me it’s called) carrying my anxiety with me has been like carrying a giant orangutan on my back. (For a very funny real example watch this great advert by a staple in South African culture here.)

Having a mental illness in the workplace is still more hushed than most spaces I’ve encountered. I’ve seen it unspoken in school, broached in University, and now it’s back to unspoken. Having a mental illness in the workplace is vastly prolific, yet still not as addressed as issues like chronic illness and lifestyle diseases (which are very worthy of being addressed, of course). A study in South Africa, where I live, found that almost a quarter of the workforce were diagnosed with depression.

So while I’m carrying my monkey on my back, I suspect so are a large portion of my co-workers. But so far, no one has addressed this. Here is what I wish my employers knew, so I could be supported instead of feeling like hiding.

1. Anxiety doesn’t make me less productive.

Just because I have a mental illness (multiple in fact) does not make me or any other person less employable. In fact, those with mental illnesses often have very hard-won coping mechanisms that enable us to deal with daily life effectively. These coping mechanisms have helped me in my own life — things like recognizing and practicing self-care, learning to prioritize stresses and let go of ones if I can, and taking time out to regroup. I can function both because of and despite my anxiety.

2. My mental illness needs to be acknowledged.

My mental illness may affect my daily life and make certain tasks more difficult. Certain periods are much harder when I’m having a bad cycle, and having the support and understanding of my co-workers would mean the world to me to banish the nagging negative self-talk that often accompanies a bad phase. Acknowledging my mental illness could help me realize I have nothing to be ashamed of, a thought that often strikes when I’m in the middle of something — like a panic attack in the bathroom, which happens all too often. I might need the understanding to have my own way of working, whether it’s rejecting the very popular open-plan workspaces, or needing personal meetings to maintain direction.

3. I am not about to fall apart.

I may have my fragile moments, but I am not fragile. I have come this far and I intend to keep pursuing my goals, with my anxiety along for the ride. But…

4. I might feel like I’m about to fall apart.

Just because I have survived thus far doesn’t always mean I remember that or feel like it will always be true. An encouraging word here and there helps to remind me I am successful, despite what I may be thinking.

5. I might miss work, but it’s not because I’m lazy.

Sometimes I may need a day to sleep, rest, catch up on self-care and generally recharge to be able to function at work. Not allowing me the time to have a day off without needing a doctor’s note may make me push through when my reserves are already at 1 percent.

6. I might need some help adjusting.

These five steps could help validate, support and encourage me at work. In essence what someone needs from an employer is understanding and the space to come forward with personal battles without being belittled, unheard or disregarded. In this way, the workplace can become less about the unseen monkeys being carried, and more about the joint efforts going into work with them. In fact, if I could talk about my monkey, maybe my employer could reveal theirs. In this way, work becomes less about hierarchies and unseen despair traps, and more about shared experiences and the ability to work together, instead of work apart.

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Thinkstock photo via demaerre.


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