My first experience of the workplace was following my mum door-to-door while she sold Avon’s latest lip colours and bubble baths. As I tagged along I found it all incredibly daunting. Behind each door was a STRANGER!
So it’s no surprise that, when the time came for me to be a grown up and head into my own place of work, complete with a whole gaggle of strangers, I was rather anxious.
I was a shy and awkward child who had experienced panic attacks and severe stage fright when cast as Mary Magdalene in the school play. But, deep breath, shoulders back, head held high, it was time to become a fully fledged confident grown up.
I looked up to the likes of the fictional Ally McBeal who thrived as a successful attorney despite her disturbing visions of dancing babies. Even so, I felt that in order to succeed I had to show the world that this meek and feeble young woman had the heart and stomach of a king (credit: Queen Elizabeth I – not Ally McBeal).
I didn’t feel like I had the mind of a King (or Queen), however. I was shy and nervous. And I wasn’t quite sure what to say when I needed to get fresh air in the middle of the afternoon because I was building up to a full-blown panic attack.
‘Err, would you mind if I took ten minutes for a walk. I feel……sick.’
It’s not easy to tell your boss that you’re terrified but you’re not sure what of. Or that you need to leave a meeting so you can dash to the loos and check in the mirror that you’re throat isn’t closing up.
However, when I did choose to open up to a line manager it kind of back fired and I wound up with an appraisal that described me as ‘over emotional’ and ‘self absorbed’.
My anxiety got worse and I was signed off sick.
Thing is, I am starting to learn that not every workplace is like that. I was just unlucky.
I work at a charity now, Home Group, and lived experience of mental illness is actually seen as a great thing. We’re encouraged to offer peer support to other colleagues, join the health and wellbeing group, blog for the intranet and generally, just be really nice to each other.
We’ve also got access to a confidential counselling service – which is spot on given that I’ve been waiting since February for my NHS referral!
Not every company is lucky to have this. And there are no doubt some attitudes that still need to change. But through my own experience, if you’re feeling scared or alone at work because of the impact of your mental illness, I’d strongly suggest confiding in close colleagues who you can trust. I did, and my mate Tom had my back when I was faced with challenges from a previous employer.
It’s also worthwhile looking on the staff intranet or speaking with HR to find out what support services are available – it’s best to know about them BEFORE you need to use them. And if there’s not much on offer, ask about setting up a group to consider things like peer support networks and other services. Time to Change have loads of ideas for organisations – and their Employer Pledge is a great thing to work towards.
Most of all, remember, your mental health is as important as your physical health. Don’t feel you have to invent a new strain of bird flu or an exotic skin disease to justify time off work if you’re experiencing a bad bout of anxiety. And don’t feel you have to spend the day tucked up in bed in a dimly lit room with a mug of Horlicks. Getting out and about in the fresh air and seeing people is actually good for your mental health. Of course you shouldn’t go running if you have a broken leg, but if you have a mental illness and you feel up to it, grab your Nike+ and pound the pavements in time with The Prodigy.
Carrying your mental illness around like a dark and dirty secret will only make things worse. Open up, seek support and look after yourself. You’ll be surprised how many people do actually care.
Anybody who doesn’t feel supported at work can speak to their union or ACAS for further advice.
Lucy blogs at www.theskyisfallingin.blog