I started experiencing real issues with anxiety in my teens and then developed depression as well. This dominated my teens and early twenties, but I didn’t seek a proper diagnosis until February 2020 when I saw my doctor and was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder. Then the pandemic hit and we all know how that went!
I have worked for a digital services company for the last nine-and-a-half years as a Facilities Manager. I’m able to share my lived experience with mental ill health in the workplace from two perspectives – that of an employee being supported (or not) by managers and also that of myself as a manager supporting my team. Two very different experiences but ones that have directly influenced each other
I have had both great experiences with managers as an employee but also bad ones as well. When I started work back in 2014, there was no real mention of mental health or wellbeing. It wasn’t openly discussed or thought about in the way it is today. There were no regular check-ins from my manager to see how I was doing and if I needed any support; it was all focused on the work.
My manager at the time was not supportive and caring, she was quite the opposite. Not only was I not able to speak up and ask for the support I needed, but my mental health was also being made worse by the working environment I was in.
I wasn’t aware of the term at the time, but I began to display signs of presenteeism. I was afraid to take any time off and felt I had to be seen to be working hard, regardless of what I was experiencing personally. With the wonderful gift of hindsight, I can see now that had I been able to go to my manager and have an open and frank discussion about how I was feeling and the support I needed, things could have been different.
The important thing to remember is that we have come a long way in a relatively short space of time in how we approach and talk about mental ill health and my own personal experiences really do reflect this. If, back then, I had been able to talk to my manager about my mental ill health, it would have saved me from a lot of self-stigma. In all likelihood, it would have probably enabled me to cope with my anxiety better by not trying to hide it or see it as something shameful or any kind of weakness.
Moving on and looking at my experiences with managers over the last two to three years and it’s a completely different story. While the pandemic brought a lot of harm and difficulty for so many people, it has helped to open up the discussion around mental ill health more and certainly the company I work for has responded. We have gone from wellbeing being important but not quite at the top of the agenda to introducing mental health first aiders, a wellbeing hub with a wealth of information and links to support, wellbeing rooms in all our offices for when you need somewhere to take a break or deal with an issue and loads of support for managers to be able to support their staff in the right way.
Since getting my diagnosis of General Anxiety Disorder in February 2020, I have found myself being far more open about my anxiety and happy to discuss it and the impact it has on my day-to-day life. We spend so much of our time at work that we can’t shut off that part of ourselves for eight hours a day and we shouldn’t have to.
My two most recent managers have been so completely different from my experience with that first manager back in 2014. My family have experienced some very difficult times since 2019 with the serious ill health of one family member and this coupled with the pandemic has had a big impact on my anxiety. However, the big difference now is that when my manager calls me or messages me and asks me how I am (which they do so much more regularly now), I can be honest and say when I’m having a bad day or when I feel like I need support. There was one period when things were so bad that I actually just called my manager one day and said, “Look I know I’m supposed to be in work this afternoon but I just can’t. I need some time and he said, “Don’t worry about it just put your out of office on and then turn your phone off. I’ll deal with anything if needed”. I couldn’t have imagined doing that back in 2014.
Taking both my experiences of being managed or supported through mental ill health as an employee (both the good and the bad) and also trying to support my own team through their own mental ill health, I have learned a lot since 2014.
My best advice to anyone trying to support an employee through any kind of mental ill health is to take the fear out of talking about mental health. Make it a commonplace discussion so that it doesn’t have to feel like a big thing if they need to ask for help or support or if you notice any signs they may need help. This also helps to remove the stigma around talking about mental health in the workplace.
Also, make sure you have the knowledge to support your employees when they do need help. No manager is expected to diagnose or treat any mental ill health of their team but the people in that team do need to know they have your support and understanding and often, just being listened to and heard goes a long way to helping. The better supported and informed you are as a manager, the better support and information you can give to help your team when they need it.