My relationship with employment has been fraught during my most recent episode. I’ve been struggling with the labyrinth of my mind for the best part of the last four years, and my ability to function within the expectations and boundaries of paid employment has been significantly affected as the struggle has worn on, exhausting me mentally and physically.
When reflecting on my experiences, there are some things I can pass on in terms of suggestions and understanding. I’ve constructed this post to offer some ideas for how to handle employment if your mental health impacts, or has the potential to impact, your ability to work or undertake some parts of your role.
1. If your mental health condition is long standing and significantly impacts your life it may be classed as a disability, which changes the way employers can treat you. Employers have a duty to investigate reasonable adjustments that allow you to continue working whilst you manage your disability. You can find out more here.
2. Although the thought is at times chillingly terrifying or laughably ludicrous, it’s best to be honest with your employer if you start to feel unwell and your attendance at work is detrimented. A white lie or two if you’re experiencing mild symptoms and only need a day off every blue moon may suffice – but realistically, even in these cases honesty is the best policy. In the spirit of such candour, I can’t truthfully say if disclosing my condition has been the best thing I could have done. I have at times felt judged, misunderstood and confused. I would always advocate honesty though, as employers need to be aware, to understand and to act accordingly. If you are going to take the plunge and be upfront with your employer, definitely take note of the next point…
3. If your attendance at work is affected and this is discussed with your manager, make sure all meetings and discussions are recorded and that you can see and approve written notes of any discussions you’ve had. This goes for any formal or informal communications; in order to protect yourself and to effectively monitor the situation it’s advisable to stick to the adage ‘If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen’. Keep copies of letters and emails as well as any minutes or notes from meetings.
4. Familiarise yourself with your workplace sickness absence policy. It will never hurt you to understand the impact your absence may have on your employment, as well as how you’re expected to report in sick, when you need a note from your doctor and what you can expect when you return to work.
5. Consider how certain aspects of your role may be affected if you suffer an episode or relapse – having suggestions or solutions in your back pocket will help you and your employer if your health declines at any point. Can you explore options to work from home if you’re feeling exhausted or depressed? Would reducing your hours temporarily help ease your symptoms or give you time to attend medical appointments? If you’re a manager, it’s simple good management to develop members of your team and delegate tasks. Training your team on some of your duties not only lightens your workload but improves their skills, and means that you can rely on them to help out if you’re absent or reduce your hours. When I was a manager I developed my team so they could function almost completely without me to get day to day tasks done; I still had many other responsibilities, but it meant if I needed to work from home I could trust them to get the job done.
6. Your health is more important than any job. If you are struggling so much that you feel unable to work, then don’t. Consider your options and discuss with those closest to you who may also be affected. Discuss it with your medical team. I can’t imagine how scary it would be to consider ceasing employment if you live independently and don’t share any financial responsibilities; it is not a decision to be taken lightly, but is one that can be made. A period of long term sick leave is an equally daunting prospect for different reasons – how does one consider going back to work and facing colleagues when you have been through so much? Whichever decision you make (and there are so many different scenarios) the simplest advice I can give is do not make it alone. It’s hard to admit, but our health can sometimes cloud our judgement and lead us to act without due consideration or entirely on impulse.
7. Not everyone will understand. Although you may describe your symptoms in the most gruelling, shattering detail, those who have not experienced it nor dealt with a mental illness in the workplace may struggle to comprehend. It is not our job to make them understand – after all, if they’d never broken a leg or suffered debilitating migraines we wouldn’t expect them to fully understand us, either. All we can do is keep the dialogue open and expect to be treated with the same dignity and respect as others.
8. Your employer may surprise you. I had worked in a company for over four years when my mental health took its worst turn to date. My impressions of my employer were that things were a little stuffy, needed modernising and the employees perhaps weren’t always the primary focus of those nearer the top of the ladder. Throughout my illness during this employment, I was treated with respect, compassion and dignity. I was allowed to work from home at times, my absence triggers were amended to alleviate any worries about having additional time off, and an open dialogue was kept between me, management and HR. I was surprised, and remain grateful to those involved for my positive experience.
It’s worth me saying that my experiences are all from office-based, nine to five jobs. The realities of other roles would give an entirely different perspective, but one universal factor I would suggest as being imperative is communication. It is certainly not easy, but in the long run is incredibly important for your own wellbeing and working life.
I haven’t gone into detail about my experiences at work (that is a separate saga entirely), but would be interested to hear others, and if there are any more tips people have learned from different types of employment. Leave you comments below – let’s open the conversation.