At least colleagues would know that I was really ill.
Returning to work earlier this year after a couple of weeks’ absence with depression and anxiety, I was covered in perspiration, shirt almost completely drenched, and feeling embarrassed.
I realised that it was pretty obvious that the stress and anxiety I was experiencing was physically tangible. The symptoms of anxiety were my equivalent of the green spots. The epiphany was not only that my colleagues would get that I had not been shirking – but how much energy I was still putting into passing as “normal”.
The intangible nature of mental illness – for the most part – means that employees who are unwell feel they have to invest tremendous energy in keeping up appearances and “passing” as being as well as their colleagues. But at what cost? The years of suffering not getting a proper diagnosis or treatment, loss of engagement and exhaustion, terrible fear of being found out and being discarded as a “failure”, self-medication with drink or drugs and other attrition to friends and family.
Back at work, smiling and engaged, but still feeling pretty awful; but not anywhere as bad as I thought it would be. Still would colleagues understand that I was not broken, diminished or weak, or inclined to drift away from the business for weeks at a time?
Work can be good medicine, if colleagues are understanding and the job is well-managed. I know that; by personal experience and by the evidence; but recovering from depression there is still a dread feeling that I am vulnerable and exposed.
I looked at the blogger’s bedroom who shared the state of his/her bedroom that went viral after a period of depression. The person’s identity was hidden but there were some nay-sayers who said that there are teenagers with similar bedrooms who are too lazy or lacking in personal responsibility and hygiene to clear up after themselves. The visibility of the impact of depression on this person’s life – they may well have been going to work during the period – was as tangible as the “green spots”. There are no diagnostic blood tests or brain scans yet which can confirm a diagnosis of mental illnesses; but managers can notice the physical, psychological and behavioural changes that show up with these very common illnesses and in their colleagues’ work. And then take action – an appropriate conversation and signposting to resources can make a world of difference.
Why don’t men want to talk about their mental health at work? Some men do, of course and there are probably as many reasons as there are men. The recent BITC report on Mental Health in the Workplace, highlighted that in general men are less confident than women in talking about mental health in the workplace – as employees they are less likely to discuss issues. According to the Samaritans, men of my age in their 30s to 50s are the group with the greatest suicide risk.
So stigma and shame keep coming back as barriers for men even though some sectors of society have started talking openly about how important the subject is to the economy and the NHS and to certain, usually, famous people who have talked openly – but what if it is you?
What I can tell you is that if I was suffering from depression right now I wouldn’t be writing this article. I feel much more comfortable talking about it when I am well; not just because the symptoms of those illnesses make me more negative about myself but because, even now the shame catches up with me too. Having colleagues though who can normalise the situation can make it so much easier to return to work or keep working despite fluctuating health.
It will be a different world altogether if more of us could be confident that our workplace would manage returning after a mental health absence in the same way as returning after a bout of flu or a bad back …………… it could happen to any of us.
Jonathan Naess, Maudsley Learning at Work