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It's Time To Talk About Your Mental Health and Career

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

Why I've decided to open up about my own mental health

Today marks National Time to Talk Day, so I've decided to talk about my own story.

I’ve always admired entrepreneurs and people who create their own destiny. I adore them, put them on a pedestal, worship even. During my time at HVO Search I spent a huge amount of time with entrepreneurs, working with them, interviewing them, being friends with them.

So when one day a good entrepreneurial friend approached me to start a company together, it was my dream come true. Except that it came at a time when I suddenly lost my mother. At the time it didn’t deter me, and I, threw myself into this amazing project. Instead of taking time away from work, I embraced it, I used it as a way to emotionally detach myself from what was really going on internally.

Working on this venture was a blessing in many ways, I learnt a lot about myself not just through the fact that we were working on ways to build better self awareness in our customers (and testing it all on ourselves), but also through the process of working in a very intense way with exceptional people.

But, I was over-stretching myself. Taking on more and more responsibility, which would have

been too much for anyone regardless of their mental health. This put a huge strain on my relationships with my friends, co-workers and myself. Coming up to a year anniversary of my mother’s death, which happens to be the Christmas period, I was at breaking point.

I've since learnt that this period of time can be especially difficult when dealing with mental health issues. And at this point I suffered yet another loss, not a death, but a bereavement nevertheless. This was the last straw and I totally collapsed. I have never felt so low as at this point in my life. When I needed emotional support of another person or better still other people.

I found an excellent therapist who was also a coach to elite athletes and he opened my eyes about how I cope with adversity. I saw that when things get hard, I over rely on myself, try to outcompete, outperform and outmanoeuvre whatever is standing in the way – even if it’s my own mental state. And this style of coping no longer served me.

What I realised was that I could not say 'no' to things that were being asked of me and took on

more and more tasks that were not even part of the original agreement. Going beyond the extra mile. At that time, what I needed was someone who:

  1. Would accept that there were issues with my mental health

  2. That it will not take a week to ‘go away’

  3. Trust that I would do the right thing for the business long-term

Unfortunately this did not happen.

I couldn't be the one to do things for everyone else at a time like this, yet my friend, my business partner who knew about my situation had responded by increasing pressure.

In this article, I will go on to explore the importance of taking mental health days if you need them. An issue such as mine wasn't going to get better after a few days off. But it's a start.

It's a clear sign to yourself that focusing on your wellbeing is a priority. And it's a clear sign to your colleagues that you should not be taking on so much responsibility at work when there is so much pressure at 'home'.

We're only human after all.

Why you should never hesitate to take a mental health day

Taking sick days for physical illness is commonplace. Your health won't improve if you continue to go at 100 miles per hour and don't take time to rest and recover. So why is the practice of taking time off work to tend to your mental health more of a grey area?

When you’re feeling too stressed, you and your work suffer, potentially leading to issues such as:

  1. Loss of patience and perspective, which in turn lead to poor performance and poor communication.

  2. Negative situations that can hurt you, your performance and co-workers.

So why do many people still feel guilty or hesitant to use one of their paid days off and instead, push themselves to show up?

Opening up to your boss and colleagues can be tricky. Not all company policies consider mental health a viable reason to take a sick day. And often there's a feeling of fear, guilt and weakness when opening up about your mental health.

But there shouldn't be.

How will opening up about your mental health affect your job performance?

One of the biggest concerns when talking about your mental health is if it will affect your job performance.

Your boss' expectations of you may be high and your relationship with them may not as open and friendly as you would like. But even casting any moral obligations aside, he or she will feel to help you aside, they will recognise that improving your mental wellbeing will improve your job performance.

There is a bell curve when it comes to performance at work.

There is a certain point where pressure is good and creates an environment for optimal performance. When the pressure exceeds the amount you can cope with and causes you too much stress, the quality of your performance will start to go down. The ideal is not to get to the top of the bell curve and operate within what is called 'the buffer zone' (which is what athletes do when they train) so if you get sick, get an injury you still have some room to recover and bounce back. You want to be able to stay in the game, rather than get knocked out.

Therefore, it is in your boss' own interest to help you recover. You may even want to address this when or if you decide to speak to them.

Your position and any potential promotions

Above all, as awkward as discussing your mental health may feel, you can go into it knowing that you are protected.  The Equality Act (2010), which your HR department should be familiar with, protects discrimination against a person with disabilities in employment. This includes mental health issues.

That means you have rights and shouldn’t be worried that your employer will act against you simply because you open up about what’s happening.

If and when you do decide to disclose, the information you reveal will be kept confidential. You may be concerned with people's judgements that you are not up to the pressure of a demanding job. Just remember, as with the performance bell chart, people's lives are filled with peaks and troughs.

How to talk to your boss about your mental health

The biggest misconception about discussing your mental health is that you will be considered weak for speaking up. If you're questioning whether or not you should be guilty for taking time off time improve your health, the firm answer is no.

However, the process of speaking to your boss can still be difficult and overwhelming.

Here are 6 techniques that can make this task easier:

  1. Overcome a fear of being judged. If you don't get the right support in the early days, you put yourself at risk of letting the problem escalate.

  2. Think about how to approach the subject and the outcome you want from the conversation

  3. Choose how and when the right time for you is, to have the conversation with boss and colleagues

  4. Be open - the more honest you are, the better equipped your boss will be to give you the support you need

  5. Remember, once you voiced your feelings, keep your manager up to speed with any developments.

  6. It may be the last place you want to be in the world but, according to research the Mental Health Foundation, work can have a positive influence on mental illness recovery, well-being, self-esteem, social connectedness and identity.

How do you talk to your team about your mental health?

What if you are in a leadership position and suffering from mental illness, with a team dependent on your guidance and direction?

Well, mental health charity Mind revealed that in England, approximately

"1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week."

While Bupa's research shows that

"1 in 4 people feel less support for mental health issues since becoming more senior."

People in leadership positions may fear that talking about mental health would affect perceptions of their capabilities and careers prospects.

And in some cases, sadly, this might be true.

But from a productivity perspective alone, the reasons for opening up are clear. Taking the time off and getting the help you need will make you better equipped to overcome challenges at work. You speaking up could also offer a sense of trust between you and your team.

Building relationships at work means greater support in the workplace and a higher chance of your colleagues backing your initiatives and supporting your decision-making.

What should your boss do to help you combat stress, anxiety & depression?

All business's have the responsibility to care for the emotional wellbeing of their employees. But how should they manage the mental health of their employees and help them recover?

Well, taking a day off may help in a lot of cases, but don't assume that a couple of personal days will get you where you need to be.

In my opinion, one of the best things an employer can do is offer flexible hours or remote working. Decide on a schedule that will work for you and the individual. This may not determined in advance but rather is decided when you need it most.

Make sure there are resources available to address health issues. A bad organisation is one that focuses only on their mission and not only the people that drive them.

Moving forward

If you notice changes in a colleague or employee, be aware of the many issues they could be going through and don't expect them to always be solved quickly.

A former colleague I knew went through a divorce and was given a week's paid leave. Yet, when she returned, she was expected to give 100%. Is this reasonable?

A divorce is like a bereavement in many ways. There is a lot to process. One chapter of your life has close and people process this and move forward at different speeds.  

“Neurosis is the rule, not the exception’, and grasping this can help us to see that we are not alone. It is also the starting point for understanding what went wrong and learning that we have a choice: we can simply re-enact the past, or we can rewrite the script.”

- Oliver James, Psychologist and author of 'They F*** You Up: How to Survive Family Life' .

One thing is for certain, if your employees are aware that you care about their professional and personal wellbeing, they will work harder and deliver better results.

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