Courage to Soar
By Sarah Henderson

The title of this post was inspired by the title of Simone Biles’ autobiography. I could really relate to the words when I glanced at the cover as my daughter was reading it. Working with depression and anxiety is challenging when you keep it hidden. It takes courage to soar above the stigma that is attached to mental health and be open and honest with work colleagues. I was embarrassed, ashamed and scared to tell them about my depression/anxiety in case they treated me differently. Or in case it harmed my chances of undertaking different work.

Courage to Soar

Mental health in the workplace

I kept it hidden for the majority of my working life and it is only in the last few years I have been open about my depression/anxiety. So now all my work colleagues (not just my line manager) are aware of it. I am extremely lucky that my employer encourages conversations on mental health and raises awareness of it. My workplace has improved its support for mental health illness and continues to look for improvements.

During my last bout of mental health illness I could access six free sessions of counselling and there is a helpline if I need it. Everyone will have a different experience of workplace support, including at my workplace. I am aware of people who have been ignored by work colleagues after being open about their mental health illness. So there is still some way to go to improve things.

Just because someone has a mental health illness it doesn’t mean they can’t do their job. If someone breaks their leg or has cancer, support is to given to them and adjustments made to help them get back to work. Mental health illness requires exactly the same.

‘Thriving at work’

In October 2017 the UK Government published a review of mental health and employers, ‘Thriving at work’. The report found some interesting and thought-provoking information:

– 300,000 people with a long-term mental health problem lose their job each year.
– Only 11% of employees discussed a recent mental health problem with their line manager.
– Half of employees would not discuss mental health with their line manager.
– Mental health is one of the greatest causes of sickness in the UK.

The report concludes, ‘We need to move to a society where all of us become more aware of our own mental health, other people’s mental health and how to cope with our own and other people’s mental health when it fluctuates’. As the report feels employers are able to make the greatest impact it sets out a framework for actions that all organisations in the country are capable of implementing quickly. To live in a society like this and to have a supportive employer would make a huge difference to a person suffering from mental health illness. This would benefit both employees and employers. It remains to be seen whether the government are able to achieve this.

I’ve learned a lot

These past years of being open and honest have pushed me out of my comfort zone, but I have learned and gained a lot from the experiences.

It takes a lot of courage to say you have a mental health illness:
I could only do it with support from my family and friends and because my employer was starting to provide an environment I felt safe in to do so.

Being open has gained me new friends:
Through sharing my experience of depression/anxiety at work I have found new friends. Some of these have experience of mental health, are supportive and have given me confidence not to be ashamed of the person I am. One with a mental health illness.

I am not the only one affected by mental health illness:
After circulating at work an article on my depression/anxiety during mental health week I received a lot of emails from people touched by mental health illness in one way or another. It helped me realise I’m not the only affected by it – this is ‘normal’ for a lot of people.

New confidence

It has given me confidence:
Being open at work has given me confidence in who I am and confidence to get involved with new opportunities and experiences. Without being open at work and writing about my mental health I wouldn’t have had the confidence to submit an article for the 1 in 4 blog.

It’s my responsibility to take care of myself:
As well as my employer providing support to me for my mental health illness I need to support and take care of myself And I need to be aware of things that can make my depression/anxiety worse. I eat the right food, meditate, exercise and get enough sleep. It’s my responsibility to be as physically and mentally healthy as possible for work and to manage my symptoms. Sometimes though, even that isn’t enough and I need time off work or extra help such as anti-depressants. Using and trying all the methods of support offered by my employer, e.g. phased return. Counselling is part of taking care of myself.

I’ve put things in place to tell my workplace earlier when I am struggling with my mental health:
I’ve now got a plan in place, which my line manager is aware of, so I can keep track of my depression/anxiety. And I have set points when I will take action to stop things getting worse and to let my line manager know in case I need extra support. When my mental health is poor it’s extremely difficult for me to talk about it without bursting into tears. (This is something I’m still not comfortable doing at work.) So emailing my line manager can be my main way of communicating at these times.

We need to talk

Being open encourages openness:
By being open myself it encourages work colleagues to be comfortable talking about mental health illness. And it helps them to understand what it is like. Only by talking to other people can we ask for the support we need and that will help. Last time I was off ill with depression/anxiety I asked my line manager to tell my work colleagues why I was off. To receive flowers and a card from them on a particularly bad day helped enormously and made going back to work easier. I am so lucky to work with such supportive people.

Not every employer is supportive though. When you have found such an employer it is hard to consider moving elsewhere. It raises questions of whether you should declare your mental health on your application form. Would a new employer be as supportive and what if you can’t cope with the demands of a new role? These are questions I, or other people with a mental or physical health illness, shouldn’t have to ask. With the right support from employers, family and the health service, people with mental health illness can make a positive and valuable contribution to the workplace.

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Reproduced with permission, originally posted on soulstitchblog

Visit our Mental Health in the Workplace initiative ‘The Working Mind‘ to see how we can help make a difference where you work or take our workplace survey


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