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10 Tips for Surviving (and Thriving) With a Mental Illness in the Workplace

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Navigating the workplace with a mental illness is a tough gig. As an engineer with bipolar disorder. I know how difficult it can be to make it to work every day, let alone to succeed in the workplace. It’s important to look after yourself (and to manage your illness) to survive in the workplace.

Here are some tips that have helped me:

1. Eat well.

This might seem obvious, but making sure you eat a balanced diet is really important for both your physical and mental well-being. I know when I’m having a stressful day, it’s tempting to reach for that extra coffee and a donut, but riding the sugar or caffeine high only leads to an inevitable crash in mood. If you’re anything like me and get “hangry” if you don’t eat enough, then make sure you do. You will work more efficiently if you’re in a good mood.

2. Don’t burn the candle at both ends.

At times, we all need to work long hours in order to get the job done. I used to be on call after hours and often got woken up in the night to respond to work issues, which meant I had to go to work the following day after having little to no sleep. Some people can manage well on reduced sleep, but I am not one of them.

I’ve learned over the years to know what my limits are and to take time out to rest when needed. Go to bed early if you need to or talk to your boss if you need a day off to rest up. Just make sure you get the rest you need.

3. Build up your self-confidence, and then protect it fiercely.

It can be hard to build self-confidence in yourself and your ability at work when you’ve got a mental illness. I struggle sometimes believing in my ability. In the past, I’ve seen my illness as a disadvantage or a reason to justify why I’m not good enough at my job. Here’s the thing, when you’re trying to succeed in your career, there will be people who bring you down. There will be setbacks (both professionally and personally) that can crush your self-confidence if you’re not careful.

Confidence in yourself is a powerful tool, which will help you get back up when you fall down. So take the time to build it up and then protect it. Don’t let anyone (or any setback) take it away from you. Protect it fiercely.

4. Find your person.

We all need a friend to chat with at work if we’re having a rough day, and with a mental illness, it’s even more important. Find someone at work who you can talk to if you’re struggling. It helps if this person is someone you work closely with so they can help you with any work related issues.

I’ve been lucky to have had some amazing people in my life who have supported me at work when I’ve been having tough times, including some of my managers. I know not everyone has a manager who they can confide in. However, if you do, it can make your work life so much easier, especially if you need time off or some extra flexibility.

5. Break up the day.

Taking breaks are a great way to clear your mind and to refresh your energy. I work in an office all day. So I like to take a short walk at lunchtime or to sit in a nearby park and eat my lunch while soaking up some vitamin D.

It’s easy when you’re busy to skip a break to get more work done (or so you can leave work a little earlier), but it’s a good way to manage your stress levels. If you’re like me and find it hard to take a break sometimes, then set a reminder in your calendar or schedule a meeting with yourself. Block out the time so everyone knows you’re not available.

6. Leave work at work.

This one is a tough one and something I’ve had to work on a lot over the years. I often used to take my work home directly and indirectly by ruminating over work even though I wasn’t there. I eventually realized I spend enough time at work thinking about work and worrying does not help at all.

If you struggle with this, then scheduling activities you enjoy doing for after work can be a good way to take your mind off it. I also try to not talk about work too much with my partner or friends. I try to focus on the things outside of my work life when I’m no longer at work.

7. Be careful who you trust.

It would be nice to believe all people are supportive and understanding about mental illnesses, but unfortunately, they’re not. Although most people have been supportive when I’ve shared information about my illness with them, there have been others who have used it against me.

While I am not in any way ashamed about my illness, I recognize there is still a stigma and misunderstanding surrounding the issue. Because of this, I try to be careful with who I entrust knowledge of my illness with in the workplace. The rule I use to determine if I share information or not is to ask myself, “Does it help me if I tell this person about it?” If not, then I keep it to myself.

8. Let people know what helps.

When you do tell people about your illness, it can be helpful to let them know what they can do to support you. I’ve found a lot of people I tell about my illness want to help but don’t know how. Letting people know what they can do to help is a great (and proactive) way to ensure you get the support you need and so others feel good knowing that they are helping. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as letting them know if you prefer to be given space when you’re not doing so well or that you like people to rally around you for support.

9. Exercise.

Getting regular exercise is a great way to improve your mood, reduce your stress levels and keep you physically healthy. You don’t need to run a 10k or take up CrossFit to see the benefits. Find the type of exercise that works best for you. (You might need to try a few things to see what you like.)

I like to take a yoga class and I cycle to work a couple of days a week. If I’m having a stressful time at work, I try to schedule in some extra time for exercise. It really does help keep my stress levels at a manageable level.

10. Never, ever give up.

It can be easy sometimes to want to give up. Life is hard. Work is hard. Having a mental illness is hard. You can succeed at life and in your career, if you just keep at it. Keep showing up. Keep working hard. Keep being the amazing person that you are.

Originally published: July 9, 2016
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