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When You're Afraid of Telling Your Work About Your Mental Illness

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I have struggled with anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember.

My work life has been an emotional rollercoaster due to fluctuations in my mental health and well-being. Sometimes I’ve been able to cope well with my work commitments and responsibilities. Other times, I’ve failed miserably — becoming overwhelmed and unable to hide my mental health problems from my boss and colleagues.

And that is what I tried so desperately to do: “hide” my problems; paint over the cracks; smile on the outside while shriveling up inside.

The constant fear of being “found out” was both mentally and physically draining — adding to the unbearable stress and contributing to my deteriorating mental health. Small mistakes became huge scary monsters, clawing away at my mind until I could barely think of anything else. I believed that my boss was doing me a huge favor simply by employing someone like me. I’ve always felt that I was on borrowed time — not good enough and never far from being exposed as the weak and incapable person I believed I was.

It’s no wonder I failed to perform highly and shied away from any career development opportunities. Promotion and progression were for others to enjoy. In my mind, I stepped aside to make way for the worthy, confident, strong-minded individuals to move onward and upwards in the organization.

I realize that part of this self-defeating attitude is a symptom of my illness and the negative thoughts and beliefs it generates. However, part of it was born from past experience where disclosing my mental health problems at work transpired into my worst nightmare on a few occasions. The social stigma attached to mental health made it difficult to cope and recover. I still have the deep-rooted scars of being managed out of employment at the first opportunity because people believed I lacked the intelligence or ability to do a good job.

I knew only too well how awful it was to be “found out.” The lack of care and support from previous employers was something I could never forget. As soon as my performance dipped, the alarm bells started ringing and I was treated like I was the problem — not my illness. I personally was seen to be failing, rather than my health. I learned firsthand how the workplace wasn’t for the faint-hearted or weak-minded. For someone like me with a mental health problem.

For so long, I have wholeheartedly believed and even accepted this as something I just have to live with. That my time with any employer would be short-lived and that I would either have to go willingly as I started to struggle, or be pushed out like the times before. It was simply down to how long I could survive before crashing and burning.

So you can imagine the fear and trepidation I felt recently when I had to tell my current boss I was struggling. I expected the worst. I could see my future flashing before my eyes — everyone horrified and too awkward to look me in the eye; eventually going off sick or leaving completely. Losing my income. Letting myself and everyone else down.

That is what I expected to happen, but is not what actually happened. When I told my boss about my mental health problem, there was no stunned silence or sigh of despair. She looked me in the eye and, with warmth and compassion, thanked me for telling her. She thanked me for coming to work and explained that she appreciated how difficult it must be for me and acknowledged the huge effort I had obviously made.

This was such a powerful message and the start of a massive turnaround for me personally. For the first time ever I felt appreciated and of value while struggling with a mental health problem — the two coexisting as they had never done before. I was struggling with depression, yet I was still considered of value to the organization and my boss wanted to support me so that I could recover and remain at work.

And when a person feels appreciated and valued, magical things can happen. With the support of my boss and my colleagues, I have since played a key role in the development of my organization’s first employee mental health strategy which will help to transform the culture of the organization and the way we manage mental health and well-being in the workplace.

I have used my personal experience of mental health problems to help devise a program to educate people about the importance of good mental health and well-being; protect and improve the mental health of our employees; eliminate stigma and ensure that people feel able to talk about their mental health and can receive the care and support they need and deserve.

With the continued support and understanding from my boss, I feel like my career is finally taking off. I am learning that it is possible to manage a mental health problem whilst thriving at work and being seen for the value I add to my organization, rather than a burden to offload.

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Getty image via Mladen_Kostic

Originally published: November 28, 2017
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