In 2019, I wrote a blog post entitled ‘The FAQs of Mental Health In The Workplace’. Using my experiences of struggling with mental health throughout my working life, I wanted to answer some of the most common questions people have asked me regarding their mental health at work.
However, two years have now passed and both my mental health and my career have been on so many journeys since that first blog post was released. I’ve gone through so many truly great highs and powerfully painful lows, met so many different people working with their mental health, heard so many new scenarios about working life and changed so many elements of my own career that I really wanted to approach this topic from a new perspective.
It’s also important to state the obvious – we have all gone through a global pandemic since the previous post was published. Over the past year and a half, general mental health has suffered and struggled and the impact of COVID-19 has been enormous. We’ve all faced more isolation than ever, our routines have been changed, we’ve had to adapt and re-adapt to different scenarios, we’ve witnessed so much loss and are still grieving for the time we missed out on. The rates of anxiety, OCD, depression and eating disorders are skyrocketing and the NHS is at a crisis point trying to handle it.
Our mental health matters, especially as we’re slowly acclimatising to ‘getting back to normal’. Whilst some of us are desperate to get out of the house, others are finding it hard to open the door and we need to address some of the biggest problems facing mental health in the workplace right now.
Should I go to work if my mental health is really bad?
Unfortunately, in life, we can’t schedule our mental health. We can’t plan our depressive episodes on bank holiday weekends or book our anxiety attacks in for a quiet Friday night. Mental illness can hit us at some of the most inappropriate moments and, frustratingly, that is something we do have to learn to process. So what happens when we suffer a bad mental health episode at 10pm on a Sunday night or first thing on a Monday morning? How do we decide whether to go ahead with our day or to take the day off to recover?
I think there are a few questions to ask yourself here before making a decision.
- Have you been able to function reasonably well today so far? This means have you been able to get up, have a shower, open the curtains and speak to your family or partner. Do you feel like you can continue to fuction as you get dressed, travel to work and start your tasks? Could you manage to eat some breakfast or drink some water before you go? Evaluate just where you are in terms of your capability right now and how much you feel you are physically able to do.
- Do you feel safe leaving your house and going to work? In your current mental state, do you feel like it would be safe for you and those around you should you continue with your work day? Would you feel safer if you were at home?
- Have you been in a similar position and managed a work day before? Often we can suffer similar mental health episodes in a cyclical fashion, where we experience the same symptoms, length of episode, thought patterns and recovery process multiple times. If you’ve experienced a mental health episode like this before and felt like going into work made it worse, then perhaps it’s time to call in sick. But if you know that going into work was a useful distraction last time and actually helped you to feel slightly more balanced, then it could be good to stick with it.
For me personally, work can help to take my mind off my physical and mental symptoms and can give me something productive to focus on for a while. The more time I spend dwelling on my mental health, the worse I tend to feel. But for others, the idea of work can make them feel more anxious or more depressed and so some time to rest is the right option for them.
Try to figure out where you are in your mental health episode and understand that no matter what you do, you will be ok. If you get to work and feel worse, you can always come home. If you stay off work and feel worse, you can go in again tomorrow. The decision you make here is not the end of the world, so don’t put pressure on yourself to get it exactly right every single time.
How do I tell my boss I don’t want to return to work?
The pandemic allowed many people to experience the highs and lows of working from home. It gave them the opportunity to experiment with the home office, enjoy more time with their families, save money on their commutes and find healthier routines at home for their mental health.
But as the country begins to open up again, many bosses are expecting their employees to simply return to the office as normal. For those of us who struggle with mental health issues, returning to work can be an incredibly daunting prospect – whether we’re worried about the continued impact of COVID-19, adapting to a new routine or dreading the higher pressures of working in an office again.
Most workplaces should offer their employees the chance to work remotely, at least for part of the week. This is now becoming a recommended system for many office-based companies, as it allows their employees to work comfortably and safely whilst still maintaining a link to the office. Try to find out what your company’s policy is on remote or flexible working, and if anyone else is keen to work from home too. Then set up a meeting with your boss and just be honest.
Explain that your mental health has benefitted from being able to work remotely and that your work has improved for it. Explain that you’re still worried about the safety of being in enclosed spaces again and you would prefer to stay at home. Explain that you have been working efficiently and consistently so far from home so you’re reluctant to change your routine. Being open and honest about your justifications for working from home is the best way to help your boss see things from your perspective and understand why remote working is your preferred choice.
What should I do if a particular task at work makes me anxious?
Often, in our jobs, there is that one task that we really don’t enjoy. Perhaps it’s a certain form we have to fill out on a monthly basis, perhaps it’s answering the office telephone when no one else can, perhaps it’s something complicated with a lot of consequences for getting it wrong. The apprehension of this task can make us feel anxious, depressed, worried and even panicked if we know it’s approaching and can lead to other mental health issues surrounding our jobs.
We can begin to fear other areas of our work that may be linked to that particular task, or resent the colleagues and managers that ask us to carry it out. We can feel the urge to call in sick on the days the task needs to be completed or simply avoid it and face the repercussions.
With tasks like these, there are two options: fight or flight.
Fight: You can choose to tackle the task head-on. You can ask someone to explain it to you in more detail, to help you become less afraid of it. You can ask to shadow someone else as they do it to ensure you get it right. You can practice it in your spare time to help you become more efficient at it. You can bite the bullet and swallow your fear to get the job done.
Flight: Or you can speak to a superior and ask to be removed or exempt from the task. Arrange a meeting with someone with the power to change task assignments and explain your circumstances to them. Hopefully, they’ll be able to understand and be sympathetic to your circumstances.
No matter what you decide to do, it’s important to remember that this is not your entire job and does not define your worth in your workplace. This is just one task and it’s ok to find it hard.
Work distracts me from my mental health problems at home. Should I ask for more hours?
For many people work can be a great distraction from panic, anxiety and the problems we leave behind us at home. It can force us to focus on something other than our own worries and fears, it can drag us kicking and screaming into socialising and it can help us to feel like we have a purpose – rather than just existing in a persistent depression hole.
So when our mental health starts to decline, naturally we can want to spend more time in a place where we feel even slightly better. However, it’s important not to just cover up the problems with extra hours of work and begin fearing spending time at home. Work is designed to be temporary, we aren’t meant to live our lives there and so shutting out the rest of the world can be unhealthy and destructive.
It’s also important to remember that making decisions when we have poor mental health is a very bad idea. When we’re especially low or anxious, we can become impulsive and careless, spending money on things we don’t need or booking plans that we might not be able to make. In an effort to feel better, we try to control too much of the world around us and can end up regretting some of the decisions we make.
Instead, try to find ways of coping at home – whether that’s starting a new hobby or activity, exercise, a DIY project or just writing your thoughts down. Wait until you’re in a more stable position mentally before choosing to change up your life.
What happens if I have a panic attack at work?
Put quite simply: you will have a panic attack. It will happen. What’s important to understand is that a panic attack at work will not kill you or hurt you. Most of the time, when we experience panic attacks, our first instinct is to flee and so your body will carry you to the nearest toilet, fire escape or quiet hallway. Your instincts will help you to calm down, mentally telling you to breathe slower, to just gently let it pass, to grab a sip of water. You can play a calming game on your phone to help distract your racing thoughts or do some quiet meditation to slow your heart rate.
You will experience your panic attack and then it will stop. The panic attack will end and you won’t get fired, you won’t hurt anyone, you won’t humiliate yourself in any great way – most likely people will simply see you walk to the toilet and not think anything else of it.
But you also need to remember that fearing a panic attack at work can almost be as bad as the panic attack itself. Losing yourself in a spiral of anxiety can be difficult to break, so it’s important to approach this worry from a logical and rational perspective. Your anxiety or panic attack might be uncomfortable, but it will not ruin your life.
I feel like the only person with mental health problems in my office and I find it hard to relate to my colleagues. How do I break down this barrier?
When we’re dealing with mental health problems, it can feel as if we are the only people in the world struggling. We can look at everyone around us and wonder how they’re able to live their lives so normally and so effortlessly, whilst everything we do feels enormous and scary.
But let’s be realistic – you are not alone. Every single person around you will have encountered or experienced mental health problems. Whether it’s been a one-off panic attack, a period of PTSD, a loved one with a mental health condition or a chronic mental illness, they will have faced this before and they will not judge you for what you are going through.
It’s also important to understand that mental illness is not the only possible struggle in someone’s life. They may be dealing with relationship problems, financial difficulties, health problems or family issues too – problems you might struggle to relate to or understand on an empathetic level. But the fact that their struggle is different to yours shouldn’t alienate them from you. Everyone is human and everyone goes through good and bad times and sometimes it’s ok to be the first person to go ‘hi, I’m having a bad day. Do you fancy a cuppa?’
Opening up to people can help form those bonds and even if they can’t relate directly to your condition, it doesn’t mean they won’t be sympathetic or kind to you about it. It might mean you even begin to form a support network around you who understands the way you act when your mental health is difficult.
On the other hand, it can also be beneficial to have those small-talk conversations away from mental health. When we’re struggling with anxiety, OCD or depression, it can feel as if nothing else matters and that our world revolves around our mood and our behaviour – but this can be unhealthy and unproductive in your recovery process. Learning to appreciate a simple conversation about the weather or a TV show or a book can give your anxious mind something else to focus on in a dark time and can allow you to reach out beyond the black hole into something easy and tangible.
People aren’t here to be unkind to you. They don’t exist to make your life harder or to be separate from you. They’re just there and how you relate to them is entirely up to you.
It’s so important to have these conversations and find these safe, productive spaces throughout our working lives so the more you can do to improve your environment, the better. There is always a better way of living – all you have to do is ask.
If you’ve been struggling with your mental health this month or need some help handling your mental illness at work, I’m always happy to listen and share my advice. Drop me a message at [email protected] or message me on any of my socials @nikki_mccaig.
Thank you so much for reading,