Navigating Mental Health in the Workplace | Part 1 Thomas
My name is Thomas Coleman. I’m a Senior Consultant at Deloitte, where I work on technology and software engineering projects in the Public Sector. While I think my work in technology is fascinating… I’m here to talk about my experience dealing with mental health issues in the workplace.
We now work in a time where awareness of mental health in the workplace is growing, and many organizations are implementing policies and initiatives to better support their employees tackle mental health issues. Deloitte has made a lot of progress in recent years in terms of its support to employees through not only its policies and campaigns, but also the culture in the firm (more on that in a later). Nonetheless, it can still be hard to navigate mental health issues in the workplace. This article will share some tips on how to address one’s own mental health issues based on my experience. I would note that everyone’s situation is different, so these tips are by no means a definitive answer, but these would be the tips I would share if someone asked 😊. But first a bit of context.
At the end of 2016 I went through a period where I was suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. It started in October and November with short episodes of feeling tense and anxious, without being able to identify exactly what was making me feel this way. I just remember thinking to myself: something doesn’t feel right. (To clarify these episodes were happening mostly outside of work). Then one day on Saturday at the start of December I had a full on panic attack, this was then followed by multiple hours of feeling anxious and worried. For the next few days I suffered multiple panic attacks, each day feeling that I was spiralling within my own head.
Finally on the Wednesday of that week, the anxiety was so bad that I had to leave work. I literally could not focus, as I found myself spiralling with negative and anxious thoughts. I knew that I could not go on like that without doing anything.
I booked an appointment with my GP who referred me to the NHS’s mental health services, and I also scheduled a meeting with one of Deloitte’s mental health champions, a group of partners who are there to direct individuals to the firm’s resources on addressing mental health issues. This person referred me to our Employee Hotline, where I was given a free consultation, and then 8 weeks of face to face sessions with a counsellor, all covered by Deloitte. I chose to continue the counselling on my own, and ultimately did so for a year and a half. In retrospect, going to counselling was one of the best things I have done. Not only did I address the causes of my anxiety and learn tools and techniques to manage symptoms of anxiety going forward, but I also learned a tremendous amount about myself and the person I want to be.
One thing that is worth calling out is that while my anxiety was caused by personal circumstances, it made it very difficult to do my job, let alone perform at my best. Deloitte was supportive in the sense that I was given space and time to go to counselling and get the help I need, without pressure or a sense of expectation. Put simply, if I needed to leave early or come in late due to counselling one day, there were no questions asked (this goes to the culture point I raised earlier).
So if you find yourself in a similar situation, what can you do?
My lessons learned (couldn’t help myself with the consulting lingo! 😊)
Seek help as early as possible. This might seem like a no-brainer but many people go on for long periods of time with mental health issues without getting the help they need. There can be a number of reasons for this, but one thing I’ve heard from multiple people is that it can be difficult to admit to one’s self and to others that something is wrong. Many people also feel like they do not want to make their friends or loved ones worried, and they themselves may not fully understand the feelings and emotions they are experiencing, and hence it can be difficult to communicate. Nevertheless talking about it with friends, family, colleagues or a professional is a great first step. I started to feel the symptoms of anxiety for nearly two months before I began suffering from the panic attacks and ultimately getting help. During that time I was afraid to tell my friends and loved ones, including my partner, exactly how I felt because I did not want to scare them. Once I did open up about it, I felt like I started to take control of the anxiety. Seeking help early on can prevent the mental health issues from getting worse, and could also result in overcoming those issues sooner. In the end, my friends and loved ones were right there with me, and my colleagues were equally supportive.
Explore what resources your organization provides. As mentioned at the start of this article, many organizations are beginning to provide better mental health support to their employees. This may include free and private employee helplines, sponsored sessions of counselling or simply directing you to external providers of care that you may not know about. I was lucky in my case that Deloitte organized and covered 8 weeks of counselling for me while also providing me the space to attend counselling during working hours. I would guess that many organizations provide at least some if not all of these resources.
Be open to those colleagues that need to know. Not everyone needs to know about your mental health issues, but certainly your manager and possibly some of your team members do. This is so that they can provide you with that space to get the help that you need. If, for example, you need to leave early to attend a counselling session, then your manager needs to be aware. Another benefit is that your manager and colleagues might take your circumstances into consideration when managing your workload. In consulting, for example, projects can involve high stress environments with a heavy workload and tight deadlines. If your manager knows that you are suffering from mental health issues, they can try to shield you from some of the day-to-day stress at work while potentially shifting some of your workload off you so you have more time to focus on yourself. Lastly, if you are undergoing mental health issues you might not be performing at your highest level. Letting your manager know provides you with some cover on that front. Speaking to your manager and team members about your mental health issues can be difficult, but I have two reflections on that. First, it is in your organization’s interest that you are as healthy as possible, so they will more than likely be very supportive of you getting the help that you need. Secondly, I generally find that most people care about each other, and it’s likely that your manager and other colleagues will want the best for you personally too!
Try to compartmentalize. This is easier said than done, however what I mean by this is making space and time to engage with the issues you are experiencing. This might be through counselling or by taking 30 minutes every couple days to think about what you are feeling and why. It is difficult to do this when we have busy lives and busy jobs, but by doing this you can make time to understand the feelings that are causing your mental health symptoms, while freeing yourself up to be more engaged in the other aspects of your life. From a professional perspective, this also means that while you are at work, you are fully present at work. If you need to go for a walk at lunch to change your surroundings and clear your head, then do it. It will free you up for when you are back in the office so you are not distracted or bothered.
Dealing with a mental health issue is difficult, both personally and professionally. But at the end of the day, getting the help that you need will get you back to being you personally and professionally. While making sure you are well in your personal life is most important, there are things you can do at work, such as seeking resources and support from your employer, speaking to your manager, and making time to focus on yourself and your feelings (including taking a walk outside at lunch!) that will make this process easier!