Mind the Gap! Working with a Mental Health Condition

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There is an increasing acknowledgement from businesses of all sizes and in all sectors, that maintaining a mentally healthy workplace makes sense. Given that 45% of Australians will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime, it is one of the most common risks to productivity in the workplace. Mental illness is now the leading cause of sickness absence and long-term work incapacity in most developed countries and is estimated to cost ca. $10.9 billion to Australian businesses a year. The business case for a mentally healthy workplace has been articulated in terms of cost reduction, return on investment, employee value proposition and legal compliance.

Online resources and face to face training courses to assist employers and employees have blossomed in recent years, suggesting strategies, actions plans, tips and guidelines, etc. to deploy. For example:

Meaningful employment (paid or unpaid) is part of good mental health and helps people recovering from a mental health condition. It gives people purpose, personal responsibility, hope for a better future and improves their self-confidence. Helping employees with a mental health condition to stay at work or return to work is therefore as important as focusing on prevention and early intervention. However, this is where there seems to be more of a gap in knowledge and resources. The Return to Work website does contain a number of excellent resources for employees, supervisors, colleagues, HR professionals, return to work coordinators and others.

What is harder to find are stories from people who have worked with a mental health condition and what they have to say about what worked and what could have been better for them. In a series of videos produced by Heads Up, eight people shared their personal stories about working with depression and anxiety disorders (the most common forms of mental illness). I have summarised their experiences of what they said generally helped:

  • Managers being open, empathetic and receptive to employees who disclose a mental health condition
  • Recognising when someone needs additional support and knowing how to guide them to seek medical assistance (usually via their GP)
  • Enquiring what other (professional and personal) supports a person has in place to manage their condition - being socially isolated and unsupported is a key risk factor
  • Recognising that the person may need to adjust their type of work, who they work with, their workload, or take time out to maintain or improve their wellbeing
  • Managers and employees actively collaborating over workplace adjustments, or return to work plans (that usually involve a graduated return)
  • Personally checking regularly on the person's wellbeing, particularly their level of stress, workload and any issues affecting their ability to work
  • Being encouraging about the person’s valued contribution to the business - seeing their competencies as separate from their mental health condition
  • Respecting the right of the employee to keep aspects of their condition and treatment private and maintaining confidentiality of anything they do disclose
  • Letting the employee choose whom to disclose their condition to and how to explain any absence from work - telling your story is liberating but also requires courage
  • Understanding that everyone’s recovery journey is different and each person has to discover what works for them to get well and stay well
  • Encouraging team members to take care of one another 
  • Reducing stigma around mental health conditions by educating the whole workforce and encouraging open discussion

In my own case, returning to work following an extended absence of several months after I first became unwell, which had included periods of hospitalisation, was one of the hardest challenges I have ever faced. My anxiety meant that I was prone to stammering and pacing; I avoided crowds, speaking up in groups and making phone calls. My depression made me perpetually tired and low in mood. It made it almost impossible to concentrate for any extended period, or to think clearly, follow conversations, talk to other people, take notes in meetings, or believe that I was capable of tasks that I used to find simple. I didn’t recognise myself and neither did my colleagues. Unfortunately, I was given a new boss to work with who didn’t know me at all, a less than meaningful task to work on initially, no one to work with and no knowledgeable confidante to talk to when I was struggling. It was messy; my return to normal functioning took 8 months of ups and downs, with the support of my family and a few trusted colleagues, following a self-directed plan worked out with the help of my psychologist.

During a second extended period of anxiety and depression, which was triggered by stress at work, I managed to remain at work part-time, although my mental health kept deteriorating. I wasn’t eating or sleeping properly, yet I kept pushing myself to perform as normal. Eventually, I recognised the need to work with my manager and HR manager to reduce my work time, but my workload and leadership responsibilities did not decrease commensurately. Added to that, I was supporting other team members who were experiencing their own stress-related issues. My whole life and my family were affected by this perpetual struggle. I was taking medication and seeing a psychologist every two weeks, but despite this, in the course of that one year, I attempted suicide 3 times. I would show up at work the day after I left the Emergency Department saying I’d had a 'rough couple of days'. It sounds crazy to me now that I let this situation go on for so long and it ended up with me resigning, reconfiguring my career and then coping with a marriage breakdown: the personal cost has been huge.

Since then, I have developed a new way of managing my depression and anxiety with a different lifestyle and a larger range of personal supporters, many of whom have a lived experience of mental illness either themselves or as a carer. Peer supporters such as these would have been invaluable to me during both my experiences of working while mentally ill. I think this constitutes a huge gap - external medical professionals treating someone with a mental health condition do not know the ins and outs of someone’s workplace culture and its demands. Plus, all the workplace training in the world cannot replace the knowledge and skills developed from a lived experience. That is why I think workplaces should consider employing ‘peer supporters and mentors’ to assist someone who is working with a mental health condition, to act as their sounding board, advisor and practical supporter; they could also act as a potential liaison with the workplace.

Have you got a story that you would like to share with others about issues in the workplace that have affected your mental wellbeing? Do you need help now for yourself or a colleague or direct report in the workplace? Please make Contact.

Want to find out more about a new peer mentoring and workplace wellbeing service being set up in Perth? Visit the Mind People At Work webpage and make Contact