The FAQs of Mental Illness At Work

In 2019, more people are suffering from a diagnosed form of mental illness than ever before. Therapy and mental health services are stretched, with budget cuts providing limited funding to one of our most desperately needed health communities. Having struggled with anxiety for most of my life, I’ve been in a number of situations where my mental health has impacted both my ability to work and the way my work viewed me as an employee.

For this reason, I wanted to help other people who might be going through a similar experience when struggling with their mental health at work – covering topics such as ‘how do I tell my manager I’m struggling’ to ‘how many sick days can I take due to mental health?’. Now, I’m not an HR expert or a mental health professional, but I’ve been through some of the toughest and most confusing situations a mental health sufferer can go through at work, so I wanted to share some wisdom.

‘Do I need to be officially diagnosed with a mental health problem to be granted sick leave from work?’

As much as I would like to say ‘of course not, you don’t need a doctor’s note for taking normal sick leave with a cold or the flu’, it’s not always the case. Some companies with particularly strict rules about personal leave can require a detailed reason for your absence, and simply saying ‘my anxiety was bad’ or ‘I felt depressed’ isn’t enough evidence for them. However, without seeing a psychiatrist, it can also be quite hard to get officially ‘diagnosed’ with a mental health problem. In my case, I was never actually diagnosed with it, as I suffered from anxiety from such a young age that no doctor ever actually dealt with it. As I grew up, I learned more about the disorder and discovered just how many symptoms resonated with me. I eventually went to a doctor when my anxiety got seriously bad and they recommend me for counselling – yet I wasn’t ever offered an ‘official diagnosis’. If this is a similar case for you and you do want that diagnosis, even if just to provide valid evidence to your workplace, go to your GP, explain your symptoms and just ask them to confirm your thoughts. They should provide you with a signed note that you can keep with you just in case.

However, if you’re in that moment when your depression just won’t let you get out of bed or your anxiety has been playing up all night and you’re just exhausted – you can simply explain that you’re not feeling well. Most companies won’t ask for details, but if you do feel guilty about it the next day, it’s always a good idea to sit down with your manager or boss and explain ‘yes I was sick, but it was to do with a mental health issue I was struggling with. I’m feeling better now, but I wasn’t sure how it would be received – in future if this comes up again, what’s the best procedure for me to take?’

Hopefully, this can help them to shed a little light on what you can do next time the problem occurs.

‘Do I need to tell my colleagues about my mental health problem?’

So I recently went through a situation where I had to leave work a few minutes early to attend a therapy appointment, and a colleague asked where I was going. I had built up some trust with her so I explained that I was going to see my therapist and awaited her reaction. She was a bit surprised but then admitted she’d also seen one before, and although it hadn’t helped her then, she was completely open to the idea. If you work with colleagues that you trust and that you know have been tolerant about issues like this in the past, and most importantly, you WANT to share this information with them, then do it.

But, there is absolutely no requirement to do so if you don’t feel comfortable. What you do or deal with in your own time is your business. If it begins to affect your work a little bit (which, yes, sometimes it will but we’ll get to that later), that doesn’t mean you have to launch into your full psychiatric report – simply explain that you’re having an off day. Your workplace is just that – a place to go to work. If you don’t want to tell your colleagues, your manager or your boss about your mental health issues then don’t. You aren’t hiding anything from them that they need to know, so don’t feel guilty about keeping that area of your life private.

‘What do I do if I make a mistake at work because of my mental health problem?’

What a lot of people don’t realise is that mental illness can interweave itself into so many unexpected areas of our lives. Most of us don’t even know what a healthy mind feels like, so when we do make mistakes or slip up, we tend to blame it on ourselves – rather than considering the possibility that our illness had a role to play. I tend to find that when my anxiety plays up, my attention to detail flies out of the window, and I have to work so hard to make sure I keep my focus. But if I’m tired or too busy fighting off that anxious feeling, yes something things do slip through the cracks. And usually, of course, making that mistake will make me feel awful and cause me more anxiety, causing more mistakes, etc… The cycle goes on.

So what do you do when you realise you’ve messed up and you realise it was due to a symptom of your mental illness? You take a deep breath, you slow your thoughts down and you detach yourself from it. Outwardly, yes, you admit the mistake to your manager or client, you explain that you know how it happened, that it was wrong and that you’ll work harder to do better next time. But inwardly, you make a note of what happened – write it down on paper if it helps – and you file this under ‘I was feeling (depressed, anxious, suicidal, confused, etc…) when this happened, next time I feel that way, I’ll keep an eye out for that mistake’.

This way, you don’t beat yourself up for the mistake but you learn from it and train yourself to deal with situations like this. Training your mind into accepting blame but not self-loathing is one of the most difficult things to do, and if you can make every mistake into a learning lesson then you’re more likely to come out the other side smarter and stronger.

‘I struggle to go to social events with work due to my mental health, but I feel like my managers think I’m not part of the team’

So in the modern workplace, there’s a certain culture that forms around ‘out of office bonding’. This includes the Friday night sessions, leaving drinks, birthday meals, office outings, workplace ‘fun days’…For some people, they’re a great chance to spend time with their colleagues in an informal setting and to let their hair down after a hard week. But for others, the element of socialising with drunk, noisy and overly informal colleagues is a big point of stress.

Unfortunately, to those managers who don’t understand or know about your mental health problems, this can look like you’re unwilling to be part of the team or to ‘have fun’ with the rest of them. Some managers will even form stronger relationships with those colleagues that do go to social events, leading to promotions, more opportunities or insider information on company updates. So it can become a real problem professionally.

In these circumstances, there are a few options: 1) you speak to one of your managers. You explain that work events can impact your mental health and that you really struggle to attend them – but you don’t want this to damage your professional reputation. You could also provide them with a solution, by explaining that perhaps social events in the afternoon are easier than nights out without expecting them to rearrange their calendars just for you. 2) you grit your teeth and go, even if just for one drink. You have a couple of laughs, make up an excuse to leave, and promise to buy them a round next time you go out and go home without causing a big fuss. 3) you don’t go, but instead of just sidling away, you make it appear as if you’re devastated not to be going and ask for a full breakdown of what happened the next day. This not only helps your colleagues to feel like you’re more fun and relaxed, but it can also help you to understand what happens at work events, should you decide to go on one.

‘I told my manager about my mental illness and now they treat me differently’

So this problem occurs fairly regularly in the workplace and is kind of a tricky one to handle. On one hand, no your manager absolutely should not be treating you any differently due to a mental health problem, and this could be considered discrimination if it becomes a professional problem. However, on the other hand, by telling your manager about your problem, you are asking certain things of them – to be empathetic, to be aware, to be considerate of your mental state. For whatever reason you told them, there was an intention there – whether it was to be treated differently or not. So from that angle, they are almost doing as you asked.

However, in a workplace setting, this behaviour isn’t appropriate and they should not be talking to you differently, isolating you from your colleagues – in both positive and negative ways, or expecting different levels of work from you. One of the best things you can do in this situation is to almost prove them wrong by doing absolutely everything right – working even harder to prove yourself. By keeping yourself afloat and managing every task they set you, it should help to reform their opinion of you as a capable, reliable employee, rather than an ill or frail sufferer. Within reason, maybe offer to take on more responsibility and maintain your good standard of work despite all of the treatment you receive from your manager.

If it does get out of hand though, and trust me, it can, then you have to speak to them about it. But you need to be able to provide examples of when it happens, to avoid simply looking paranoid or sensitive. You need to be able to tell them ‘well you skipped over me for that task and said…’ or ‘you mentioned to me about my mental health in that meeting and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that’. If you make it clear that, whilst you appreciate your manager was looking out for you, you have your mental health under control and are just as capable as every other employee, hopefully, they should understand a little better.

I hope these have helped anyone who was worrying about any of the issues above! I was definitely inspired by Alison Green at Ask A Manager for this format, but I really enjoyed writing it, and it actually helped me to reflect back on a lot of the lessons I learned in my last workplace. If you do have any other questions I might be able to help with, drop me a message and I’ll hopefully be able to give you some advice!

Thanks for reading!

Nikki McCaig

Nikki McCaig

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