TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains mention of a suicide attempt
I’ve had mixed experiences of telling my work about poor mental health. I struggle to tell those close to me when I’m feeling down or anxious so telling anyone at work seems like the a pretty hard mountain to climb.
The first time I told my employer, I only gave in after I had been put on antidepressants and my mental health, along with the side effects of starting SSRIs, was making me so clumsy and forgetful that I felt I was a danger to myself. I did it by email, it was the only way I could. I wrote it, read it, deleted it, rewrote it over and over. Once I had the final version it still took me a while to bring myself to click send. My boss was very understanding, he responded saying his son was struggling and he knew how hard it could be. He told me not to do any lab work if I didn’t feel safe. It was soon before I had time booked off for Christmas so there were only a few days left of work anyway. It felt good, I was glad I had been open, when I came back to work in the January I had turned a corner (after giving up on the meds but that’s a different story, they’re not for everyone).
Cut to a few years later, I had accepted a job managing a lab in the city where I went to uni, the place I’d always wanted to move back to. It was a small company with only one other person in the lab to manage but it still felt like a great step forwards in life. I had decided to buy a house, I was moving out of London so could finally afford to. I was determined. I stayed on sofas and rented rooms for weeks at a time when people went on holiday. Why sign a tenancy agreement when I’m going to have a mortgage soon? After five months, endless house viewings and three offers falling through I was on my knees, I cracked.
I had driven off in my van one night to just get away from it all, upon waking I couldn’t face getting out of bed, let alone going to work. I texted the girl I managed and she said she would let them know. In the next few months things got worse, I missed more days here and there. Once I eventually got the keys to my house my head was in tatters. It wasn’t long after that when it all became too much and I overdosed. I woke up in hospital with my mum by my side and only a vague memory of what had happened. My mum spoke to my boss and I was signed off work for two weeks. Being a small company there was no HR department, everything happened through the Director.
When I went back I had my ‘return to work’ interview with him and it was very clear he was not equipped to be dealing with this. He started by saying ‘so everyone knows’. I was horrified. I don’t remember a huge amount of the rest of the conversation because all I could think of was the shame of everyone knowing I had tried to take my life. I remember him telling me I should be aware of how it had affected others, I was gobsmacked. It made me so self-conscious of going to work and seeing people, I started missing more days and eventually one day I got up from my desk, texted my boss saying ‘I can’t do this anymore’, turned off my phone and sat in a field with a bottle of gin. That was the end of that job.
I am now in an interim job having lost mine at the beginning of the pandemic. I have always struggled with SAD, with it hitting hardest in the months before Christmas. This winter has been no exception, lockdowns exaggerating ill mental health worldwide. One of the days I just couldn’t manage it, I texted to say I’d had some bad news and wouldn’t be in, which wasn’t true, and I was told not to worry. I then admitted to my manager I had SAD and he was very supportive. Since then I have lost a family member and they have been very accommodating, they have started telling me to get to work later as they realised the early morning shifts were getting to me. I still can’t bring myself to talk to them about it face to face but I don’t think that matters. I’m not asking them to provide solutions to my mental health, just to acknowledge it and occasionally be flexible, which they always are. It’s been quite refreshing, I was nervous after being stung but it feels good to be able to be open and have it dealt with in a professional manner. I hope this can be a turning point for me and that in my next job I can find a similar level of understanding.
So in answer to my question, I still don’t think I have a definitive response. Of course we should be able to tell our employers but it can be tough and sometimes lead to repercussions, I know of others that have lost jobs by being open. But I think people are waking up and becoming more accepting, we’ve still got a long way to go but we’re moving in the right direction.