At 28 I was newly married, we had bought our first flat; I had my own car and had a great job with a top pharma company, people said I was going places. So why did I feel tired, cry so much, not sleep and was unable to feel happy? Why did I feel like I couldn’t breathe and was having a heart attack when I was on public transport?
One Monday morning it was too much and I just couldn’t get out of bed after a sleepless panic-filled night. I called into work with a stomach upset, and after two solid days of listening to Radiohead I took myself to the GP. In a 5-minute consultation he diagnosed depression and panic disorder and swiftly prescribed me clomipramine, a tricyclic anti-depressant that is also used to reduce panic attacks. He also prescribed me propranolol, a beta-blocker, to take when I felt I would have a panic attack (for me, usually on planes or trains). He then wrote me a vague sick note, signing me off work for 3 weeks; the sick note did not mention mental health at my request. He also referred me to see a behavioural psychiatrist, but told me it would take up to 6 months for an appointment.
I called my employers and told them I had a terrible virus and spent the next 3 weeks in a haze of darkness waiting for the drugs to kick in, avoiding talking to everyone and literally dragging myself from day to day.
After 2 weeks, I started to feel a difference in my mood as the pharmacology worked its way through my system and I was able to take more of an interest in life and prepare myself for going back to work. When I started back, I felt as if I could just about make it through each day but was exhausted by the end, usually going home and returning to bed. I never told anyone in the office how I felt or why I had been off and managed to paint a smile on my face every day. A few weeks into my return I saw something on a staff noticeboard about EAP support (a confidential Employee Assistance Programme) and gave them a call. They assured me of confidentially (a big concern), set me up an assessment appointment with a therapist, and told me after that I would be eligible for six free hour-long therapy sessions. The sessions were a huge support and although a mental health issue can’t be addressed in six sessions, the therapist gave me some great coping strategies which kept me going until I finally saw the behavioural psychologist months later.
No – he was a lovely man who showed respect and empathy for all his staff (and who has remained a friend to this day). However, I worried I would be stuck with the stigma of having mental health issues. I worried this would hinder my career. I worried people would treat me differently. I worried if I told them I needed to take propranolol before I could get on a flight, they wouldn’t give me any international projects. I worried people would feel awkward around me or would be watching me intently for any potential breakdown. One in four people will suffer mental health issues at some point in their life,1 so why does this stigma exist?
The Time to Change survey showed that almost nine out of ten people with mental health problems reported the negative impact of stigma and discrimination on their lives.2
Had I told my employer the reason for my sick leave, EAP would have probably been mentioned to me earlier, and I could have started the sessions sooner. Who knows what other support they would have given me, but my main priority at the time was on acting normally so as not to raise awareness of my condition.
A Mind survey in 2013 found 90% of people who took time off work due to stress did not cite stress as the reason for their absence, with the majority telling their boss they had a physical health problem such as a headache3
It wasn’t just my employers I didn’t want to tell. With the exception of a couple of close friends, I didn’t tell my family or friends either.
A 2008 Stigma Shout workshop showed that participants rated highest the statement: Family have lowered expectations of me; assuming I will achieve less and cope less well in specific situations2
I didn’t tell my family when I started therapy and always made an excuse for what I was doing during that time. I guess I didn’t want their judgement or their advice, the last thing you want to hear from people is ‘oh you just need more vitamin D/ get more exercise/ mediate/ open up more’ or quite simply ‘just snap out of it’.
For me, when I eventually saw a therapist I realized that it was the way forward and was able to stop taking the medication soon after the sessions began. Over the years I have seen various therapists at different stages in my life when I have felt I needed some support (some have been excellent and some have been average – like medication, it can take time to find what is right for you).
Like a physical illness, it can take a long time with many different techniques to fully heal, there is always a risk of relapse and it is a case of getting back on track each time with the treatment that works for you. Having treatment does not make me less of a person, and I believe having gone through a lot of this makes me a stronger person in many ways.
Now I am an employer myself, what do I do now to support staff who have mental health issues?
As a small company it is important to have a strong team and culture. We need to understand that there are differences between people, and embracing these are what makes a team strong.
I always talk to people about what is right for them. We are only a small team but there is always someone other than just a direct manager to talk to.
Empathy and just knowing someone understands is very important. I know how determined and hardworking people can be when they have mental health issues, it does not take away someone’s drive and determination, nor does it necessarily affect their ability to do the job, they may just need the flexibility to do it in a different way. With open discussions, the best way forward, and one that benefits both the individual and the business, can be found.
We aim to support our staff with:
- An Employee Assistance Programme
- Open talking
- A weekly ‘temperature check’ (score from 1 to 10) to see how people are doing
- A no-blame culture
- Encouragement of clear, open, honest communication
- A pleasant working environment with a relaxing dedicated area to take lunch
- Optional team building events – these are important to some people but not everyone’s ‘cup of tea’, so social activities are held but not enforced
Success should not be hindered by mental health issues, ultimately mine wasn’t and often the setbacks we suffer in life can drive us further forward. I continued in my career in pharma throughout this period and was promoted to a very senior level before leaving and setting up my own successful company. I have found a way to manage my mental health issues, and even though there are ups and downs overall, it has never been a road block for my working life.
There is more we can do and always will be, but for me as an employer, the key thing is to ensure we have an open-minded, non-judgemental and supportive culture and that we listen to what people need in all aspects of their well-being. All of the things we put in place are small, but if they make a difference to one person, then its a step in the right direction.
Written by Ffyona Dawber, MD at Synergy Vision