Last month I had a deadline to write an article for Mental Health Today. I’d been saving related press releases and collecting my thoughts, sure that I had something to add to the mental health at work debate.
But a week prior to my deadline, the black dog reappeared at my heels.
A year on from my borderline personality disorder diagnosis, I am learning to manage this condition reasonably well but when depression and anxiety hit, as they are want to do periodically, I struggle to cope.
I’ve realised that this enforced time in bed reveals a shift in my attitude towards work
On these days, bed is both my refuge and a prison, keeping me safe but frustrated, barely able to function let alone face productive work.
As the week and more passed, I was so angry that my own mind, the source of my creativity, could also keep me away from my laptop and my desk, carefully positioned in the corner of the same room.
Yet looking back on the experience, I’ve realised that this enforced time in bed reveals a shift in my attitude towards work.
Who do you tell about your mental health?
The Institute for Leadership and Management report raised a number of interesting findings. Like me, 37% of respondents turned to family and friends about their mental health struggles, then their GP and only 21% spoke to their line manager first.
Perhaps they needed reassurance (and the rubber stamp from their doctor) that something was demonstrably wrong before approaching their boss.
The solution offered to 14% of respondents was time off from work, which is what I both sought from my boss and was granted.
According to the survey, many would have preferred alternative solutions such as support with workload, working from home and coaching. It never occurred to me to pursue these possibilities.
I felt that time off was appropriate, creating mental space and a chance to regroup. But unconsciously it also encouraged a feeling that work was part of the problem, not part of the solution – even though, unlike 84% of respondents, I didn’t see my issues as related to my work.
I think this is an unhelpful mindset because work can profoundly support our mental health.
How work can support our mental health
A great example of this is cited in the Institute for Leadership and Management report. Brentwood Community Print CIC (Community Interest Company) is a print and graphic design firm in Essex staffed by adults in recovery from mental health illnesses.
If a team member is in crisis, their peers provide support
If a team member is in crisis, their peers provide support. They are not sent home and are instead encouraged to focus on work. Audrey Clark, the director and herself a former service user, explains that: "We take this approach firstly to show that our team are valued as individuals and secondly, by remaining in work they learn how to develop strategies to cope with the symptoms of their illness and be able to remain in work thus avoiding long-term sickness leave and possibly isolation, which can lead to a deterioration in mental health."
Continuing to work
Since going freelance last autumn, I too have come to see the value in continuing to work when facing my mental health issues.
Aside from the obvious financial benefits, there is the pride and satisfaction that comes with work – the dignity and sense of identity it offers. On a more prosaic level, working keeps me mentally occupied, filling the brain space that could otherwise be filled with ruminations, obsessions and other destructive thought patterns.
Of course this doesn’t always work.
At the beginning of October, I simply couldn’t write, but my frustration at the situation signaled that I now see work as part of the answer, not the problem.