We are in the midst of Mental Health Awareness Week and this year the emphasis is on stress and in particular, stress in the workplace.
I have been dealing with mental health issues all my life, both my own and other people’s. I have always found the workplace the most difficult area of life to deal with. If I’m trying to deal with stress and anxiety at home, I find it easier because I can just hide away until it passes but, in the workplace, there is nowhere to hide. Things are improving, in terms of acceptance and understanding but there is still a long way to go.
Due a rather fractured home life I was anxious as a child and teen and I now realise I also suffered with OCD. Constant counting and symmetry touching were with me through to my twenties. My daughter has noted that when I’m stressed I still constantly touch my fingertips with my thumbs. I was just into my 40’s when my mental health really deteriorated. I was bringing up my daughter alone, working long hours in a very stressful industry, my Mother had committed suicide a few years before, leaving me as carer to my step-Father and my Grandma. I was struggling, although I didn’t realise how much. I took voluntary redundancy, opened a café in my local town and promptly had the mother of all nervous breakdowns. I spent the next 6 months sat in a corner of the sofa, shaking like a whippet in a snow storm.
Eventually the drugs kicked in and the therapy I paid for myself started to kick in and after 10 months I felt ready to face the world of work again. I applied for and got a job as a Teaching Assistant in a local primary school and therein began 9 years of hell. There is a lot wrong worth our education system, but it wasn’t that. Most of my colleagues and the kids were great, it was the Head Teacher who was the problem. I had been honest and upfront about my breakdown and my physical conditions and was told that the school had a supportive attitude towards mental health issues. Oh no they didn’t. Well she didn’t anyway.
I could write an entire novel about my treatment at her hands, but I’ll save that for the memoir. Suffice to say her cruelness caused a whole cycle of me being poorly and taking time off work because I was frightened of her attitude towards me for being poorly and taking time off work. I was stuck in a mental and physical health vortex. However, I will talk about one episode that has stuck with me since that time and makes me shudder every time I think about it. In early Autumn 2013 I had decided to try and come off my anxiety medication and by the beginning of December I was tablet free and doing ok. Around the middle of the month I was rushed into hospital with a gangrenous appendix. I was very poorly and it had all been very stressful. My GP signed me off for a month with instructions to rest and do nothing for at least 2 weeks including driving. I reported this to the school and that’s when I got the first phone call from the Head.
She was supposedly ringing to offer comfort and see how I was, but it soon became obvious that as with previous times I had been ill, she was actually ringing to force me, very subtly, back to work. She was a master of phycological abuse. Because of this on top of my operation, a few days later on Boxing Day I had another nervous breakdown and had to go back on to the tablets. My GP also referred me back in to therapy and this time I had to do it through the NHS, which meant a long wait.
In early February I went to for a Return To Work health check and the same day went back to work. I went directly to the Head’s office and had only been in there for about 60 seconds before she started shouting because she wasn’t happy with the recommendations of the medically trained nurse, who had assessed me at the R.T.W. meeting earlier. Can you imagine how I felt? If I wasn’t already fragile enough, mentally and physically at that time, I was in bits by the time I left her office.
I also had a Return To Work meeting with her later that week where I told her about being referred back into therapy. She just couldn’t get her head round it. Surely if I had been in therapy before I didn’t need to go again. I tried to point out that if I had broken my leg for a second time I would still need it putting in a cast. It was at this point that she suggested I should go for E.C.T. (Electroconvulsive Therapy). To say I was gobsmacked is the biggest understatement ever. E.C.T. in my opinion is the most barbaric of treatments and it is only used as a last resort for people who have life threatening depression and people for whom medication and other mainstream therapies aren’t working. My own Mother, who suffered from Bipolar Disorder, had it and frankly she was never the same afterwards. But because the Head had seen a programme on it she suddenly believed herself to be a fully qualified psychiatrist.
In the 9 years I worked in the school I never once felt valued, supported or protected and that last episode was the catalyst for change I needed. Just over a year later I left and went back to my old role in the digital design and advertising industry. The company I now work for does value me, does support me and does protect me and do you know what? Despite my mental and physical health issues in the last three years I’ve probably only had 5 or 6 days off sick.
What can we do as employees to help ourselves when we feel stressed and anxious? Everyone is different but for me the keys are rest and relaxation. I simply can’t function if I am overtired and being so exacerbates my anxiety. I also try and practice Mindfulness, which is incredibly helpful. Getting out of the office when I’m feeling on the edge of a panic attack, even if it’s just for 10 minutes, helps enormously. If I don’t feel well or if my workload is getting too much I tell someone. Being up-front lifts a weight off your shoulders and allows others to know that you need some support. Don’t suffer in silence.
As a co-worker we need to keep an eye on our colleagues. Engage with them, ask them how they are feeling and don’t ignore their answers. Giving someone that extra minute whilst stood making a brew together can make all the difference. On average we spend more time with the people we work with than our family and friends.
Employers need to realise that human beings are not robots and that the 78-year-old still working, who has never had a day off in 64 years, is the exception rather than the rule. They need to understand that you get more from people by being kind to them than figuratively beating them with a shitty stick. Finally, they need to understand that as the world gets a faster, more reliant on technology and therefore more stressful, more of their employees will suffer with mental health problems.
As I say, attitudes are improving but they need to improve faster and across all areas of society. The Government need to step up too and give the NHS and employers the tools and the investment required. Has anyone else noticed how quiet it has gone on this subject since the general election? Now there are no election campaigns to run and seats to be won the promises have fallen by the wayside. Fortunately, we still have opposition M.P.s like Norman Lamb on our side.
As a society we have to recognise that once people have mental health issues they may have them for life, rather like someone with Type 1 diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis and that there is no ‘cure’ just ways and means of keeping the illness under control.