Mental Health in the Workplace: Time to Talk
As part of our Wellness Week, we have been encouraging members of TIPi Group to talk about their Mental Health.
One brave employee has stepped up and volunteered to share his experiences with panic attacks.
Written in his own words, it is a truly inspiring story about the power of honesty and friendship, and the importance of a sense of humour.
On World Mental Health Day, we have been granted the author’s permission to share his story with the world.
Through the act of sharing, we hope to break the silence surrounding Mental Health in the Workplace.
We hope to convince those who are suffering in silence that now is the Time to Talk.
I’m a man who suffers from panic attacks. They’re the kind that make me certain I’m about to die. I’m certain I’m having a heart attack: my chest hurts, I can’t breathe, I have heart palpitations, numb hands and face. One finger hovers over the Call button on my phone, 999 pre-dialled. One finger is glued to my wrist, feeling for my pulse, willing my heart to keep beating. I’m sweating profusely – terrified.
I tell myself: you’ve been through this before. You just have to endure it. But my mind screams at me: “This one’s different! Your chest has never hurt this much before, you can’t breathe, this is the real deal: heart attack. Go to hospital, it’s your last chance!”.
That’s what I used to do: take myself to A&E and sob incoherently to the staff behind the counter. Waiting for them, yet again, to tell me I’m fine: it’s a panic attack. Now I just ride the attacks out, focus on my breathing and try to be with someone.
I’ve got through them before. I’ll get through this one. And they’re happening less and less these days.
Having mental health issues doesn’t make you weak. It makes you strong. You have a perspective that others might not have.
For me, panic attacks are a memento mori; a reminder that I’m going to die. It helped me to work out what was important to me. And what wasn’t. But I didn’t get to this stage of acceptance alone.
I wouldn’t have been able to be so positive about this without a support network; without loved ones being there for me when I felt like I was losing my mind or certain I was seconds from death. That’s what’s important when you’re suffering: having people around you to lean on.
I’m one of the lucky ones who’s comfortable talking about my struggles with my own mental health. I’m lucky that I have a group of kind, thoughtful friends and colleagues who have always been there for me and to listen. My friends understand that these panic attacks are just a small feature of me, not something that defines me.
But that’s the thing: if I hadn’t learned to talk about my struggles, or my friends weren’t comfortable listening without judgement (and occasionally coming with me to hospital), my life may have turned out very differently.
People can’t relate if you don’t communicate.
To those struggling with your mental health: talk more, be open
Talk openly, genuinely and with good humour about the issues you’re struggling with. Find the funny in it. Let your friends understand so that they can be there for you. Trust they will be. Stop thinking this defines you, and don’t give in to it. Give yourself a break and don’t fight it: accept it and grow.
Be an inspiration for the person who can’t open up – the person who feels alone, with no way out, who is suffering in silence getting worse and worse. Take away the stigma of mental health by comfortably talking about your own. Don’t silence yourself. You have an opportunity to really help.
Learn about what ails you. Understand it on a psychological and physiological level. Tell people how you feel and why you feel that way. Your friends, colleagues and family can’t understand what you’re going through if you don’t help them understand.
I’m assuming that you’re also getting the professional support you need. If you’re not, then please see your doctor. You’re not a failure for doing that. They’ll help you realise there’s a journey for you to be better. Don’t give up.
To those who have not yet experienced periods of bad mental health: listen, don’t judge and don’t feel attacked.
If you manage people:
Nearly 10% of people meet the diagnosis criteria for anxiety and / or depression. This one issue is estimated to cause 20% of all sick days in Britain.
But when was the last time someone used their mental health as a reason for not coming into work?
If your staff have never used this excuse, then they do not feel comfortable being honest with you.
As a manager of people it can be extremely hard to hear that your staff are hurting. You naturally feel some of the blame for that. It takes a lot of confidence to foster a working environment where people can be open about their personal battles.
Make it okay for someone to use “I need a mental health day” as a reason for being off work. Don’t make them add “lying” to the list of reasons they don’t like themselves. Trust me, it can snowball.
If they open up: have the confidence in yourself to listen, without letting yourself feel attacked or blamed. They will have experienced the same kinds of issues at other places they have worked. Be the boss that supports them and you will have a team member who will love you for it, both professionally and personally.
For everyone else:
If someone opens up to you about their mental health then listen. It is hard to be honest about something that makes you feel so weak. Do not listen with judgement or jump straight to offering solutions (unless asked). The biggest way you can help someone is to make them feel that they’re not in it alone. That it’s ok to be scared and that they’re not permanently broken. You’ll get through it together.
Encourage them to get professional help, if they’re not already. But do not use this as an excuse not to talk to them about their experience. Be proud that they trust you enough to be vulnerable to you in this way.
The world won’t change because of a mental health day, or week, or month. It will change when those suffering speak-up and those spoken-to listen.