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Jun 27th

Mental illness and work

small_4006709Some years ago, I needed to take time off work. I didn’t know it then (I never went for diagnosis) but looking back, there were some signs of depression and anxiety.

It happens to a lot of people. MIND, the mental health charity, estimates that one in six of us will experience mental health problems at one time or another at work.

That’s a lot of the workforce.

Although my own experience was – fortunately – a temporary “blip”, mental health problems – because of their physical invisibility – can cause havoc in your working life.

So what can you do if you fall into that one in six statistic?

Get well

It sounds obvious, but you need a diagnosis just so that you know what you’re facing and the steps you need to take to recover. The NHS should be your first step. Get an appointment with your doctor and ask for referrals. There’s lots on offer, from psychiatry to psychotherapy, support workers and occupational therapists. Don’t feel embarrassed about it. These are professionals who can help you get better.

Don’t just loll about at home and think you’ll get better from self-diagnosis. (My mistake.) Health professionals can write reports for you and generally smooth things out with your employer.

Be upfront

Make sure your employer knows what’s going on so any necessary arrangements can be made.

I was lucky in that my employers were exceptionally human. They recognised and understood distress even when I didn’t have the words to explain it. Not all employers are as understanding, so find a trusted colleague who can accompany you in meetings and generally be your ‘champion’.

If you find face-to-face meetings challenging, write things down first. This is such a simple step, but incredibly helpful. Write down what’s happening, what you find challenging, what the doctors have recommended that you do; and what you want to happen to facilitate your return to work.

This last bit is essential: it talks the language of business and it gives a manager (who might not understand your situation) something concrete to hold onto.

Be kind to yourself

Take the time you need to get back on your feet. You might want to phase in your re-entry to work, for example, or only work on certain projects. Be clear with your manager about where you can contribute the most. This might involve shelving or passing on the work that drains you of energy, and only doing that which energises you.

Don’t let the experience hold you back

The biggest worry is that somehow having a mental problem at work will stop you from working anywhere else. But don’t panic. First of all, you never need mention illness on your CV or even at interview. Frankly, so many of us have fractured career histories anyway, that an unexplained month or so here or there is not going to make a difference. (Especially if you work in a fast-moving industry where rapid change is expected.)

Most of the time you’ll never have to explain those few months – especially if the rest of your CV is stellar. But in any case, here are some ideas to pre-empt ‘difficult’ questions:

– fill gaps with plenty of other activities
Learning a language, upskilling and voluntary work are all great. At a push, even a “personal project” or sabbatical, or a three-month holiday between jobs because you thought you “might never otherwise have the opportunity” are acceptable. Don’t lie, obviously, but don’t feel you have to write “ill health” either on your CV.

– exude confidence in every stage of your application
Focus on the positives of your application, and don’t dwell on the negatives.

– have brilliant references
Not just paper ones from ex-employers, but great testimonials on LinkedIn as well.

What I learnt from my experience is that mental distress is a great leveller. If you recognise frailty in yourself, it should make you more understanding of mental distress in others. What happened to me wasn’t – as it turned out – a career-wrecker, but it has made me far more understanding. Given the statistics around mental health, greater awareness and acceptance is never a bad thing.

Photo credit: Andrew Mason

Category: Career dilemmas

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