It was a beautiful spring day, and the sunlight streamed in through the living room windows and warmed up the room. Listening to the Pet Shop Boys that day was like the starting pistol on a particularly productive burst of activity. I find music can help me focus while I work.
When it comes to work and mental health, the figures are so grim, it’s enough to make the most Pollyanna-ish of people feel less than chirpy. Ask some employers if they would hire someone with a mental illness, and you’ll find they’d rather you had a criminal record.
People with a mental illness have the highest ‘want to work’ rates of any unemployed group, but find it tough to get into work, particularly if it’s been a long time (or never) since they did.
My own short periods of unemployment were cushioned by a lot of family support. I’ve been privileged not to have to pay the rent when I was in my 20s and doing voluntary work to get into my chosen profession.
I do know that signing on was one of the bleakest experiences of my life. It’s up there in the Top 10 of Horrible Moments in my life so far, along with being a psychiatric inpatient. And going to Hull in the early ‘90s. (Sorry Hull. I’ve not been back since and I’m sure you are much nicer now.)
So it makes sense that being in work is good for your mental health. If nothing else, you don’t have to go through the Death Eater style indignity of trying to get benefits.
I think there are a lot of unspoken assumptions about mental illness in the workplace that are a very insidious form of stigma. There’s a very negative (and inaccurate) narrative that says that we people with a diagnosis are a bit delicate and vulnerable. ‘They’ can’t take the heat or any kind of pressure and will be on sick leave all the time with ‘stress’.
It leads to the Unexploded Bomb Management Technique, in which the sorry employee with a mental health issue is handled with kid gloves from as far as distance as possible, not given any direction about what they are doing right or wrong, and is generally expected to cock up. Then it’s only matter of time before they do, are permanently signed off sick, and the nightmare is best resolved by the person leaving.
Anyone who has ever worked in an office can tell you that personality goes a long way. Office dynamics often come down to whether the leaders at the top are creating a healthy environment. So if it’s not ok to make a mistake, people work with a metaphorical shield on their backs to avoid being stabbed in it. Or if the leadership style is to bully, managers may look for a scapegoat to pin the blame onto so they can hang onto their jobs. Conversely, if everyone is supported and encouraged equally, without favouritism, it makes it much easier for anyone to flourish.
In my experience, so much of what makes working life good or bad when you have a mental health diagnosis is about your relationship with your line manager. I’ve had some excellent, some decent and some downright awful experiences. As you may well have done yourself. But what makes the difference for those of us who have a mental health condition is that, in my experience, our ability to perform well is much more dependent on the quality of this relationship.
Because with the right support, the mental health issue won’t matter. With bad, wrong or toxic support, the anxiety can seep out like a horrible ‘flu virus and infect your work.
Also, there are no hard and fast rules. What works for one person won’t work for another. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to line managing someone with a mental health problem. The best line managers are the one who focus on getting the best from their team and expect good things to happen. I need someone to have some faith in me, provide some focus but not hold my hand. I get that I’m paid to a do a job, so I need to get on and deliver it.
My attitude to work has changed considerably since I first started full-time work about ten years ago. Back then, I used to struggle with the stamina required for a demanding job. I mentally took work home with me, and took a lot more to heart than I do now.
Crucially, I thought I could ignore office politics, but I’ve since learnt the value of keeping senior colleagues happy so that I can get on with the job without being micromanaged.
Here, in a nutshell, is what I’ve learnt along the way:
1. Be honest with yourself
This applies both to me and my line manager. I have to be confident I can do a good job to keep the anxiety at bay. There’s no point in getting out of my depth and feeling super-stressed. That may work for some people – let’s face it, usually men – but not for me. If I’ve got something wrong, I need my line manager to be able to tell me in a constructive way so I can learn from it and move on. This helps avoid the anxiety spiralling so much that I’m less productive. It’s insulting not to be clear about what you expect from someone just because they have a mental illness.
Equally, there have been times when I’ve left a job because I just needed to go. Some jobs won’t work out well, or they’ll have served their time for you. Getting out with dignity is crucial in this situation, if it’s at all possible, especially if your self-esteem is fragile and you end up in vicious cycle where your productivity is undermined by a lack of confidence and motivation.
2. Take it steady
Of course you can work if you have a mental health problem. So many people do. The question is, doing what and how? I’ve chose a career path that has gone at a slower pace than some of my contemporaries. How much of that is down to personality, ambition and confidence, and how much is to do with my diagnosis, I’ll never really know. The point is that I’ve had to go at my own pace. Which brings us onto point three…
3) Don’t compare yourself with the ‘normals’
I have friends and former colleagues who are the same age as me or younger who earn far more and hold down much more pressured jobs. On paper, I could take on more than I am currently doing. But the past few years have been a blessing, workwise, because it’s given me the headspace and emotional energy to tackle some big life decisions. I won’t want to work at this level forever, but being able to go to work and not feel overwhelmed by the workload has been fantastic.
Sometimes, life feels to me like the fairground arcade game where you each have a horse that moves across a wooden race track. The horse is moved along by throwing wooden balls into a slot. Having bi-polar has felt, at times, like having a hand behind my back while everyone else races ahead. But they haven’t had to deal with the same things I have. So it does us no good to compare ourselves to others.
4) Get a work support network
I am fortunate to have a group of friends who, like me, have a mental health condition and hold down demanding jobs. They ‘just get’ what it’s like to have to do these two jobs, and get paid for one of them. It’s a wonderful feeling when my worries are understood by someone who knows what this is like. Having a safe place to vent makes a big difference.
5) Find your America’s Next Top Model (ANTM)
Everyone needs to switch off and relax. When I was doing a particularly emotionally draining job, I loved watching Tyra Banks coaching young American women who dreamed of being models. You can judge all you like, but ANTM was the perfect, vacuous TV nonsense that helped me switch off. It’s easy for anxiety to take hold, like a mental dry rot. We all need something to stop it spreading and taking over. Watching Tyra strut her stuff worked for me then.
6) Get some perspective
Above all, I’ve found it helps to find ways not to take work too seriously. Don’t get sucked into too much office gossip. It’s not real life and it doesn’t pay your bills. So long as your line manager is happy with how you are getting on, everything else should fall into place. A lesson I’ve learnt is that, as the Queen apparently once told Edward Heath, none of us are indispensible. All we can do is try and keep the people who matter at work happy so that we are free to get on with our work without too much interference. That is one of the best ways to keep work stress manageable. And it makes it easier to leave it behind when you clock off.