Managing mental illness at work
Mental health at work is still a taboo subject so in order to challenge that stigma this World Mental Health Day, Elizabeth and her manager, Cheryl, share frankly what a recent situation was like for them and how they handled it.
I have bipolar disorder and have been dealing with mood episodes since I was a teen. Despite living with this for roughly two decades, I still have bad periods, especially with low mood. One of those times was the beginning of 2021 and it was tough. Whether it was the effect of the pandemic and lockdowns, my normal winter blues, getting out of my rhythm on sleep and food over the holidays, or some combination of all of those, I had a bad depressive episode and couldn’t manage my normal workload for a few months. There is still a taboo about discussing mental health issues, especially at work, so I wanted to share how my manager, the Institute and I worked together to get through this time.
- People are understanding and glad to help
I hate letting people down and not being able to meet commitments so not being able to fulfil my work responsibilities makes me feel terrible. It’s especially galling when it’s things I know I can do. Coming to terms with the fact I can’t do things – and it is a case of can’t, not won’t or don’t feel like – is hard but I found time and again that my colleagues were sympathetic and happy to help where they could.
My manager, Cheryl, helped me break down my tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces that were possible for me to accomplish bit by bit. When I postponed a meeting that I organise and eventually couldn’t attend it, I was assured that was fine, and Cheryl even said she was glad I felt comfortable enough setting that boundary for myself. Every time I sent an email saying I was going through a period of poor health and couldn’t do something, I got replies saying no problem and they hoped I felt better soon. I didn’t always specify my illness was mental health in nature – I don’t owe anyone that information though I do want to normalise talking about it, especially as someone whose role is to create an inclusive workplace – but when I did, that didn’t change the response. Put faith in the nature of other people.
- Communication is key
I’ve been on the other side of people struggling with commitments and by far the most frustrating thing is not knowing what’s going on. Like I said, it’s difficult to admit and it feels unexplainable – I know I could do this last month and even I have trouble understanding why I can’t do it now – but it’s a much worse scenario for everyone involved if the first anyone else realises that a task hasn’t been done is the day it is due. That’s why open and timely communication is so important.
One thing I really appreciated was my manager’s willingness to act as a go-between. When I didn’t have the executive function to contact every individual impacted, Cheryl was able to be my single point of contact and liaise with others. I found so many people were happy to support me but no one can read minds so I needed to let them know the situation. Cheryl and I also had more frequent meetings and check-ins which meant it wasn’t up to me to initiate reaching out when I was falling behind on something.
- Access help
I hope everyone knows this by now but it bears repeating: getting help for mental health is not a sign of weakness. All sorts of healthcare, charity and workplace support is available and it exists for you to use. Mental illnesses lie to you and make you believe you are being lazy or your problems are a personal failing – I still sometimes wonder if I’m somehow faking being ill. Mood changes can creep in slowly so family, friends and co-workers are crucial support systems because they have a more objective view on your behaviours. More than once, including this time around, my mum suggesting I should talk to my doctor is what’s made me realise I need to seek help.
I’m not a mental health professional and these are just my personal experiences so maybe they won’t resonate with everyone but I hope that sharing what it’s like for me and what helped me at work can aid in creating an open atmosphere around taking about mental illness at work and maybe even help other people going through tough times.
I feel unbelievably fortunate that to date I have largely experienced good mental health. However, over the years many around me have not, and last year was my first experience of supporting a member of staff through a time of low mental health. Aside from recalling radio adverts which encouraged people to check-in with those experiencing a difficult period, and a brief mental health awareness session a number of years ago, I had had no training or guidance on how to support staff while also keeping the show on the road. So I was winging it.
I was aware that Elizabeth had experienced periods of poor mental health and so was concerned about the impact of the lockdown, but as a self-described introvert she would reassure me that she hadn’t reached the limits of her introvertedness. That was until the new year of 2021 when clearly she wasn’t her usual enthusiastic and creative self.
A key factor to both of us navigating this challenge was Elizabeth’s incredible openness about her situation. That enabled me to at least try to support her, as I could better understand what she was going through. And I was brutally honest with Elizabeth that I had no idea how to do this but took the approach of making suggestions and she would let me know whether she thought those would work for her or not. I think the trickiest challenge was finding the right balance between not overwhelming Elizabeth with what needed to be done with also not over-protectively taking away all her responsibilities so that she no longer had a sense of purpose and value. So we made a list of all her current responsibilities. Some of them could be easily postponed or I took them on, others were taken on for a period of time by different staff (you know who you are – thank you). But we also made a list of potentially do-able tasks, breaking them down into tiny elements – and I think importantly, while they were small, they were vital.
With hindsight, another crucial element that facilitated a good outcome was our well-established weekly chats. Although in non-pandemic times we work in the same office and routinely bounce ideas around, over the previous two years we had always had a weekly sit-down to have a general chat and check-in with ongoing plans which continued via video chat during the pandemic. This provided us with a well-established platform of communication.
It was a difficult period. But also incredibly joyful when it was apparent that Elizabeth was on the mend. Now, on the other side of it with Elizabeth currently not only firing on all cylinders but appearing to find some extra ones to propel her work forward, I have almost forgotten about it. Worth remembering though is the importance of established regular communication enabling open and frank conversations. Reflecting at an organisational level, it is important to implement measures that will have an impact, like training for all line managers on how to support staff with mental health challenges – I have subsequently been able to do this with Mind which largely reassured me about the approaches I blindly took; it is also important for organisations to have a greater awareness of the potential impact of mental health challenges not only on those who are directly impacted but also on those who are supporting them – it is all too easy to envisage a domino effect.
While challenging and stressful, the experience has taught me a lot as a line manager and I feel privileged to have supported Elizabeth and to have been able to make a difference.
At the Babraham Institute, we strongly believe in the importance of creating a healthy workplace in which both the mental and physical health of staff are equally valued. As part of our mental health and wellbeing programme we have Mental Health First Aiders who are passionate about reducing the stigma that is associated with mental health issues and aim to normalise conversations around mental health. Full details of internal and external resources and support available for staff can be found on our wellbeing pages.