Today's post is the second in the Mental Health at Work series, featuring Mixeta, Ben and Katie. You can read my own story of mental health in the workplace here.

Mixeta


Has your mental health been affected by your work or affected your ability to work? Can you explain how?
100% - I have an array of mental health diagnoses but my chronic insomnia began actually when I graduated and got into full-time work. I thought university was stressful, but, woah! Although it was only a cafe job, it was in the VERY busy Manchester Arndale and I was working 40-50 hours a week – my sleep just stopped - my adrenaline was sky high and I couldn't for the life of me turn anything off in my body or mind. I mean, I didn't just have trouble sleeping – I couldn't actually sleep. When I did sleep, it would be for 2 hours at most. Like running on 6-10 hours a week – and from this point, after 9 years, I still can't really sleep. Hell, is a huge understatement. Since then I've worked in education, food, retail and lastly administration – all I think have played a part in the decline of my mental health. Of course, everyone's different, but I do not think full-time work (for a company which you do not care about especially) REALLY makes anyone deeply, wholly happy (at peace) – I think it not only unsettles their natural, organic rhythms, but helps distract them from themselves, what you you want, who you are. My last role was a very fast paced administrator for a big big company – to keep it short – this role I think played a massive factor in me, doing the ultimate worse thing, someone could do, to myself (trying not to trigger anybody here). Good news - I survived - and now I've been off sick for 2 months, off ALL my meds finally after 9 years, and I FEEL BETTER THAN EVER! Oh I have BPD, depression and anxiety too.

Were you supported at work? If not, what helped you deal with the situation?
In some roles they obviously do not support you – when living in Spain I found that people really didn't know what to do around mental health at work, or even simply acknowledge it! But in the UK, especially at my most recent company, I have/had an amazing, amazing manager who really listened and was able to talk to me about her own experiences in her family, and always reiterated that I shouldn't feel guilty about putting my health first (Wow, like, really? Mental health, is, health?!) So that's great. However, I do find colleagues in these big companies, are usually so far into the work-for-a-company-for-my-whole-life-to-buy-that-4-by-4-mercedes-and-mortgage kind of life, don't really know much, or have any empathy for the struggles and also STIGMA of mental health – especially at work. I felt myself being seen as lazy or something when they get the email to notify them that I was off again. I was even asked by someone on my team actually after being off sick once for some weeks “did you have a nice time off?” like it was a fucking holiday. Please! What helped me was being brash and unapologetically open about how you're feeling – cry in the toilet, just scream, walk out, do what ever you need to – ultimately, really, a job based around profit (most jobs) does not care about you! Oh and being off work has really saved me right now – 2017 was a fiery pit of hell, and making music is helping me massively.

What do you think are the biggest problems in companies in terms of MH in the workplace?
The stigma that if you have depression you are lazy, if you're irrational/emotional/stressed, as a woman especially, you are like a 'drama queen' or 'on your period' - I guess same kinda shit we have to deal with in every field of society. Also – they need to start recognising INVISIBLE illnesses ya know. Start trusting people when they say how they feel and what symptoms they have – you wouldn't question a broken leg or someone with a physically critical illness. I mean, BPD suicide rates are so high – it is basically a critical illness, and needs to be taken seriously and with respect. Also, if you value your health more than your job, you're seen as 'unsuccessful', a 'cop out', kind of like a 'Jeremy Kyle'-esque candidate (p.s. nothing wrong with people who go on that show, at least they're not afraid to publicly display emotion and don't care about protecting their ego – I wanna write about this!) - this stigma is just such BS. Support needs to be holistic if i'm honest – but we can't go into that it's too much haha – I think the WHOLE system of our government needs to be abolished/reformed TBH because they're the ones implicitly and explicitly stipulating and maintaining these kind of damaging MH stereotypes – and MH is SERIOUSLY declining isn't it. If we don't have mental health, what the hell do we have?

What do you think companies could do that would help support people with mental health issues at work?
Be more discrete, i.e. not to send out emails to the whole company every time you're off work – make sure to really reiterate the fact that we do not have to feel bad, guilty or ashamed, and reinforce this in staff meetings and whole-company level training. Actually I think that there just needs to be a whole mental health training issued to every company, mandatory, and done every few months if I'm honest.

You can find Mixeta's music here, and her Instagram here.
                                         

Ben

Has your mental health been affected by your work or affected your ability to work? Can you explain how?
My mental health has been affected by work and it has affected my ability to work.
I am a mental health nurse working in a charity supporting homeless people in Belfast with complex needs. I manage a caseload of 25-30 service users/clients, all of whom have a primary diagnosis of chronic mental ill-health, all of whom are homeless and all of whom have other serious issues and needs, most commonly drug and alcohol issues, physical disabilities and learning difficulties.
It is an unusual job helping an unusual client group. It has great potential for being very stressful and, for a number of years, it was- low pay, uncertainty about contracts, poor working environments (ie. the cheapest, most unsafe offices), clients that can be very difficult to manage, and so on. Being an advocate to very vulnerable people means that I have to be flexible and resilient with my own mental health and that I have to focus, long-term, on my own coping mechanisms. Spending so much time and psychic energy focusing on my clients, in and out of work, can take its toll and it is necessary to remind myself that I can do the job best when I am also mentally well. Regarding my ability to work, I feel that, overall, my personal mental health issues have been positive in helping me warm to clients and create a bond based on empathy. Connections are easier to form and are stronger if I am able to not only empathise (which has been honed over the years) but if I can sympathise by extrapolating from my personal experiences of depression, grief, distress, loneliness, etc.

Were you supported at work? If not, what helped you deal with the situation?
I am lucky to be supported well at work. My managers are mostly social workers and I have been in this team for eleven years. My mental health issues started around five years ago when my daughter died. I was then off work for five months on bereavement leave (to be honest I returned too early but had no financial choice). Since then I have made a point to each new manager, and my colleagues, that I know how to best manage my caseload and my job and that the primary support I need is for them to allow me to be flexible. For example, if I need to leave work early because of how I am feeling then they let me go- I will catch up another time, usually later that evening. I know I am lucky to have the ability within my job to do things this way but even if worked elsewhere I would have to share a similar sentiment- I would be letting my team know that what is best for me is also best for them and also for my clients and, if there are any concerns about my working practice or quality of the work I do, then let me know. I have had no complaints as yet.
I also insist on regular supervision with my manager who helps me keep on top my caseload too. In short, I know that I am best placed to do my job and, if my employer wants me to stay here, it needs to be on my terms. Taking control and feeling empowered at work is a luxury, I know, but in this way I am lucky.

What do you think are the biggest problems in companies in terms of MH in the workplace?
The biggest problem in my work, as with many others I’m sure, is the stigma associated with mental health. Even in my team, made up of social workers helping the client group that we do, there is not an ideal openness about mental health in the way there is with physical health issues. Stigma about mental health is pervading and deep. But times are changing and it is up to everyone, people experiencing mental health issues and those who do not but are allies, to speak up. Every time the word “depression” or “anxiety” or “bipolar” or “psychosis” is mentioned we are contributing to the perception of mental illness in those around us. I am open about my experiences to my colleagues and I find they are also open about their experiences, in return. I try to consciously foster an environment of honesty about mental illness (of course while respecting confidentiality and privacy) including about stress and anxiety about work, etc. There need not be a direct and obvious discussion addressing the issue of mental health at work but I notice, over the years, that gentle nudging here and there (“just sewing seeds” as I keep on saying) genuinely helps in promoting inclusion and support.
Also I like to remind my managers, and their managers, that extra training for staff in self-care and in promoting empathy helps productivity, reduces sick-days and saves money too!
My charity has an external counselling service that we can avail of, if necessary. When I went to see a psychologist for counselling some years ago (via the NHS) I clarified with my manager that my time off work was considered the same as time off work if I was seeing a physiotherapist or a cardiologist or any other health professional.
A quote that has helped over the years:
Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don't want it. What seems conceit, bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone. - Miller Williams
You can find Ben's blog here!
                                         

Katie

Has your mental health been affected by your work or affected your ability to work? Can you explain how?
I was with my previous employer for nearly eight years, from the age of 18 to 26. For part of this time I was a university student, and they were some of the most formative years of my life. It was a very high paced and competitive environment, and my self esteem at the time was very impacted by what was going on at work. The hardest time for my mental health came when my job got made redundant, and support was very inconsistent across the people I thought had my back. I was made to feel worthless, like I had achieved nothing, and forced to take a job with a large pay cut and drop in responsibility. The people I thought believed in me had given up on me, and I've been trying to rebuild my send of self worth up from the ground ever since. This drove me to eventually take a six month career break, which made me realise I couldn't go back to such a toxic environment. I found a new job, and I still feel unable to visit the store I used to work in because it brings back the memories of how I was made to feel when I worked there.

Were you supported at work? If not, what helped you deal with the situation?
My colleagues supported me, even three years later people still bring up how badly I was treated by certain managers. Just the acknowledgement that I was put in a horrible situation and that it wasn't my fault helped a lot. There were important people making me feel like I had failed in some way, despite a lot of hard work on my part, and that was soul-destroying. Without the support of my colleagues it would have been a lot harder. Management tried to help to some extent. The Store Manager and HR Manager fought to keep my job, which was much appreciated effort, but one which eventually fell flat. With hindsight I wish they had done more to support me onwards in my journey rather than focusing on something futile. I was also allowed some unplanned leave by my own manager to reconcile with the situation, which helped a lot. I was also allowed to go home after a particularly upsetting meeting with one of the other managers. My biggest support, however, were my friends both at work and outside of work.

What do you think are the biggest problems in companies in terms of MH in the workplace?
Mental health is glossed over a lot in the workplace. The signs of poor mental health are often ignored, or dismissed as laziness or stress that's "part of the job". It's seen as weakness when the constant pressures of the workplace cause stress and anxiety, and that can be really damaging.

What do you think companies could do that would help support people with mental health issues at work?
They could start by acknowledging that the problems exist, and that they are real. Too many times I've seen people treated like they're "pulling a sickie" or just being lazy when they have time of due to mental health. Even when they've had a doctor's note to authorize time off work, it's still not taken as seriously as a physical illness would be.
My old workplace would make "reasonable adjustments" for people who were struggling with their mental health, which proved to be a gimmick when a colleague was moved from her original department to one of the most stressful parts of the store. All the policies were there on paper, but they were very poorly executed. If policies like these were followed in the way they were intended fewer people may feel the need to leave their jobs, or feel forced out of businesses due to mental health.

You can find Katie on her blog at http://www.itsthespicybean.com/ or on Twitter at @itsthespicybean.

If you're interested in being featured on the MHAW series, please feel free to get in touch - details on the contact page!

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