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These 2 Experiences Show the Need for Better Workplace Mental Health Awareness

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I’ve worked in a fair few different companies in my life and only two have stood out with good knowledge and understanding on mental health.

As much as most workplaces would like to think they are doing a great job of raising awareness on mental health by slapping a few posters around the office with bits of information and helplines, or doing a fundraiser one day of the year, it’s actually not enough.

Recently — in the last year or so — I’ve had two different experiences that stood out the most to me, both in different workplaces. The first one, I was in a meeting with a manager about how I could declutter some of the wall space around the office. There was a pamphlet on the desk about a mental health awareness event they had and it had some resources on there where employees could reach out if they were struggling. I said, “I think it’d be a good idea if we kept these pinned on the walls as I didn’t know this was available myself,” to which the manager replied: “No, they aren’t necessary, and you wouldn’t know about it because it’s not available to employees like you.” (I was on a contract from another company within this one.)

I was taken aback. I wondered if she even realized how offensive and rude what she said was, or maybe in her head one day is enough for people to know the resources they have available for people struggling with their mental health. Well, the people who were eligible.

The second incident, I had just gotten out of hospital after spending a night there getting tests done, as I just had a horrific panic attack that had very similar symptoms to a heart attack and seizure. I was extremely drained and knew there was no way I’d be able to go to work later that day and function well. So, I called in and said I won’t be able to come in as I was feeling unwell. My manager cut me off mid-sentence, demanding details of why I was unwell. Once I told her I’d been in hospital, she sighed and hung up the phone on me.

This same manager has her name printed on the wall in our break room as someone you can talk to if you are struggling with your mental health. And, I’m not even exaggerating here; the poster says, “There will be no judgment, it will be in complete confidence.” It’s gotta be a joke, right?

I think that, sometimes, workplaces like to make out they are all for mental health, but only when it’s on their terms. I don’t think they realize the depth of mental health issues and how much they can affect a person — physically, too. People are generally looked down upon when they call in sick as if they’re not allowed to take time to heal themselves. This puts pressure on people and increases anxiety around being open when they really are unwell and struggling. This then forces people to act like everything is OK until the inevitable breakdown happens. It’s a vicious cycle and I’ve been caught in it far too many times.

I used to lie on job applications about my bipolar disorder because I thought I’d have a better chance of getting hired. Whenever it came to me needing to leave work for an appointment, I’d have to make up for it in overtime. If anyone at work ever saw me take my medication and questioned it, I’d just say they’re vitamins. I like to think that the stigma around bipolar isn’t as bad as it used to be, but I also know how much people gossip within a workplace, which is why I felt more comfortable lying.

I don’t think workplaces are up to date with the severity of mental illnesses and general mental health matters. I think they need to up their game and have more awareness days, more resources available to everyone in the workplace and have more compassionate and understanding managers running the place — managers who will understand that mental health days are just as important as physical sick days.

It doesn’t matter if you are diagnosed with a mental illness or not; mental health affects everyone. We spend a lot of our lives working, so why is it still such a taboo subject within the workplace? It needs to change.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Originally published: February 19, 2021
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