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Opening Up Helps Shut Down The Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness In The Workplace

We don't have to keep up the facade that our lives are completely together.

19/07/2017 11:19 AM AEST | Updated 19/07/2017 11:20 AM AEST
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"Talking to your boss face to face is the most agonising step, but it's something that's worth mentioning before it creeps into casual conversation during Friday afternoon drinks. Trust me."

It's been a fortnight since I went back on antidepressants. A decision that was six-months overdue thanks to not only my own stubbornness, but fear of telling my employer.

I'm not alone in needing to address mental illness in the workplace, either. In January, mental health charity Sane reported mental illness to be the leading cause of long-term workplace absence in most developed countries.

With antidepressants comes counselling, and with counselling comes the often nerve-wracking need to ask your employer for regular periods of time off. Especially if you're unable to book psychiatric sessions outside of work hours.

That's not to say my employer isn't understanding, supportive and adequately educated on the matter of mental health. In fact, there are regular internal emails about in-house counselling schemes and various healthy living plans available to all staff. More, it's the pressure we all put on ourselves to be the perfect employee.

Heaven forbid we call in sick because our raging anxiety has us physically pinned to the bed each morning.

With around one in five of the population thought to be suffering from some form of mental illness each year. The chances of you being the only employee in your company who's silently suffering is slim to none.

Some days are harder than others and how can our Line Managers possibly be sensitive to the impossible-to-diction levels of depression that can plague our day to day lives. It's also natural to think that knowledge of mental illness will make our colleagues doubt our ability to do our jobs.

In reality, 45 percent of all Australians will suffer from some form of mental illness in their lifetime. With around one in five of the population thought to be suffering from some form of mental illness each year. So, the chances of you being the only employee in your company who's silently suffering is slim to none.

In fact, according to Heads Up, one in five employees are likely to be experiencing a mental health condition at any given time.

Not just that, but the white lies we may rely on to take those much-needed rest days can build up into a far more unreliable persona than the real reasons would have it.

I'm sure my previous bosses have assumed I'm hungover when, in actual fact, I'm sobbing uncontrollably under my duvet because I've worked out each and every way the outside world is planning to 'get me'. But that doesn't make for a digestible phone call now does it.

I've changed employers since I first went on antidepressants, and building up the courage to tell my previous boss took months. I'd been called into a pre-disciplinary meeting because of my persistent late arrivals, to which I broke down and explained that my counselling sessions kept running over. There was an immediate plan put in place for days when I had to attend CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) sessions, and I was given the tools to be discreet and take all the time I needed.

The support didn't make it any less exhausting, though. As anyone with mental illness knows, having to exhale your symptoms to new people, even in the smallest of doses, is somewhat comparable to being punched in the gut. Repeatedly.

It can be embarrassing to admit that your life isn't completely 'together' outside of office hours, and your 'invisible illness' is going to start impacting on your nine to five. Sure, you fully intend to make up any time, but if you're suffering from any form of anxiety, the guilt factor can be enough to put you off being honest with your employer.

Talking to your boss face to face is the most agonising step, but it's something that's worth mentioning before it creeps into casual conversation during Friday afternoon drinks. Trust me.

Be honest, and take any doctors notes with you if you're feeling nervous about being taken seriously.

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As Madalyn Parker Rose recently discovered, when her CEO responded to her refreshingly honest out of office, which read: "I'm taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I'll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 percent."

Her boss' response has since gone viral for all the right reasons: "You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work."

For me, it's been a similar story. My male boss has been understanding and supportive of days when I need to work from home for fear of stepping outside the front door. He doesn't ask too many questions, thankfully, but has an open door policy should I need it.

My advice if you're trying to work up the courage to talk about mental illness in the workplace? Give and take. Lay it out for your employer on your own terms, but be prepared to work together to implement alternative structures for bad days.

Failing that and should finances permit, tell them to stick it because taking care of your own mental health is top priority.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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