What Happened When I Asked for Work Accommodations for My Panic Disorder
At my job, I work in various schools and occasionally have to go to central office for staff meetings, professional development and other job-related activities. In October of last year, I had a panic attack while attending one of these sessions. I have always had a bit of anxiety going into the building as I have to park around the back, and even though there is a back entrance by where I can park, I do not have access to enter that way so I have to go around to the front. This may not sound like a big deal, but I have agoraphobia that has developed from having panic attacks. So being close to my car and having quick and direct entrances and exits to places is of comfort for me, especially when I feel a panic attack coming on.
Additionally I am very sensitive to bright lights and tend to get dizzy when it starts, so more enclosed areas with less sensory overload are a little easier for me to enter as well. The back entrance goes into the basement of the building where the lighting isn’t as harsh and the elevator that goes up to the floor where I usually have my meetings is close to the exit door. I have found it much easier to go in that entrance when I happen to be behind someone who has access.
Following the panic attack, I admit I avoided going to the next monthly meeting by calling in sick. While it was definitely related to the panic attack the previous month, I was also feeling quite burnt-out and physically run-down. I knew I wouldn’t be able to avoid this in the future and as a change in my job contract meant I would also be required to report there on snow days when schools are closed, I knew I would have to be proactive.
So, I decided to contact the person in human resources for an accommodation. I knew I would not be allowed to work from home or not attend the required meetings, so I figured I would ask for something that seemed feasible and reasonable that would make it feel more manageable to enter the building. In these types of situations, I can often get to the place that I need to, but getting out of the car and inside can be very difficult. So emailed and asked if I could be given access (swipe on my ID) to enter through the back door.
I was told I couldn’t be provided with this access because they had been too lenient with giving accommodations for anxiety in the past and it had made it worse for those individuals. I was also told all they could do for me was give my name to the receptionist at the front desk and if I needed to get in the back door I could use the buzzer and speaker and give her my name and she would let me in that way no questions asked and would not be told why this was the case.
This had the opposite effect of what they intended. I actually now was more worried and had more anticipatory anxiety about the situation because I felt I was not supported and I was being stereotyped based on my condition. They assumed what they were doing was best without getting to know my individual situation and level of functioning. No attempt was made to get information from my psychologist and psychiatrist before making the decision.
So December rolls around and there is a snow day. I am so anxious I feel I cannot go in and so I have to text my supervisor to explain the situation. We generally aren’t allowed to work from home, but in this case, she made a one-time exception. She said she would touch base with the person who handled accommodations I communicated with to see about the situation. We then met a couple weeks later and I was given the same explanation as before. My supervisor said she would drive me in the next time there was a snow day and if I needed to take some medicine, that’s what I needed to do.
Cut to January and it’s a snow day again. My supervisor picks me up. I am very anxious, stressed and tearful. She makes small talk on the drive to help distract me. When we get there, I take some medicine when we enter the building before I go to the room that I am to work in for the day with others under the same contract. I felt, embarrassed, angry and frustrated since I got through the day. I felt I had provided them right, meaning it had been handled appropriately. It felt like I wasn’t “sick enough” to be supported and that had I gone that day and had not been able to cope, they would have done a lot more for me.
Additionally, I never planned on telling my supervisor about my anxiety. The lack of support from the accommodation’s person put me in a very vulnerable position where I had no choice but to disclose this. While I try to be open and honest about my mental health, I am not always comfortable with this at work. I don’t have the best relationship with my supervisor as we have very different personalities that don’t always click, so disclosing would not have been my choice otherwise. I worry this information impacts her impression of me.
Don’t get me wrong, as a psychologist myself I understand avoidance exacerbates anxiety. The thing I found frustrating was I felt I was trying to do something that would decrease my likelihood of complete avoidance of the situation altogether. It wasn’t so much the result of the situation, but the way it was handled that really made me upset. I felt dismissed and invalidated and that I wasn’t deserving of support because of the condition I have. I actually considered a human rights’ complaint, however I didn’t have the energy to do so as I needed to focus it on my mental health. I was also concerned with any blowback at work that could result from such a complaint.
I wish I had been treated like an individual and not a disorder. I would have been a lot happier with the interaction if it had been a back-and-forth conversation where we worked together to find a solution that would work for both myself and my employer. I would have liked for them to at least try to get to know me and my situation instead of making assumptions.
Today, I am doing better with the situation, but it comes and goes. For awhile I had been able to go to central office with little to no anxiety, but the credit for this goes to me alone. In the summer, I pushed through my anxiety when I unexpectedly had to go there because my work site wasn’t open. However, that doesn’t mean the anxiety is completely gone. Unfortunately, once a panic attack occurs, there always seems to be some level of residual anxiety linked to the situation, even when I can cope with it.
In fact, I actually had a fairly intense panic attack while there this past month, though I won’t be asking for support around this or any other situation at work again. In the past, I have had a hard time understanding why people don’t ask for help, likely because I have had the privilege of receiving it when I needed it. I get it now. It can be very difficult to put yourself in that situation and when you get shut down the first time, it is very disheartening and discourages you from doing so in the future. We need to do better at supporting mental health in the workplace as well as other invisible conditions. It seems to me many organizations are talking the talk, but not walking the walk. I recently found out my work has respectful workplace consultant, and had I known about the position at the time, I certainly would have gone to them about this.
It is my hope those of you working in human resource support positions will read this and take my perspective into consideration when working with those with mental health issues. We deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and doing so is vital in helping us to be successful at work and continuing to being the productive and effective employees we are.
Unsplash image by Tim Gouw