12 May 2017
Why I Told my Boss About my Mental Health
A few years ago, I broke my foot and had to traverse the streets of Manchester on crutches, with files, and (it's Manchester) a brolly. I was head of department with global domination in my sights.
I was in physical pain, but much more prevalent was the feeling of utter exposure. Had someone wanted my bag, had I fallen, had that pigeon aimed for me (a real risk in Manchester) there was nothing I could do. Had I been a cave-woman I would have been left behind and picked off.
That's how a temporary physical impairment made me feel: vulnerable and totally exposed. That’s also not an unfamiliar feeling.
We all have mental health, and at some point most of us have a bit of mental ill-health. In fact, you are much more likely to have a run-in with a temporary brain break than to break a foot, leg, arm or any other bit.
I am an employment lawyer, a team leader, a businesswoman, a single parent (he's 21 now - does that still count?), sister, daughter, aunt etc. On a good day, I can excel at being all of the above - I have even been known to pick up the odd award. Mostly, I have good days. The thing is, with a history of depression, there are a few bad days too.
At the tender age of 44, I have made my peace with the pain that my own chemistry and brain sometimes causes me. I am neither proud nor ashamed of it. But I still fear the next time my brain decides, without reference to me, my diary or my plans, to hurl me towards the cliff edge and make me feel utterly, utterly - I'm not sure there is a word. Lost? Alone?
I am actually happy. I'm also loud, confident, loved, silly, funny, supportive, hardworking, committed, energetic, and quite capable of having a party on my own if no-one can come out to play. If I hadn't told you, you wouldn't know that every day I take medication that helps me to be the good day me.
But - and here's the other thing - even on the bad days, when Churchill's dog is nipping at my much admired, red high heels that I can’t walk far in, I am kicking it in the face (as an outspoken advocate of animal rights that was not an easy phrase to write) and working, leading, laughing, arguing, negotiating, explaining the Equality Act, and advocating. I do exactly the same on the good days. I rock, despite.
I don't like the drugs, but as my GP said, "if you were a diabetic would you stop taking insulin?". Of course it's not the same, not quite. But that made sense to me and gave me permission to not beat myself up about that as well as my annoying shadow. Plus, they keep me on an even keel, or rather as my friends would have it, “normal for Evans”.
Every couple of years or so, my brain gives me a proper spanking: this is when Churchill’s dog is not only out of its kennel, but has crept in through the back door and has locked its growling, snarling jaws to my head.
It is during these walloping attacks that I have to decide whether to ask for help, from my GP, my family, and sometimes my employer. The help I need most is to bear with me please: it will pass.
It can be a risk to tell people that you need something from them, even if it’s just to be left alone to just work and not engage in conversations for a couple of weeks, to protect me from gossip, or an unplanned break whilst the worst of it passes, or working from home a bit more than usual.
I’ve had mixed responses from employers over the years. My favourite was the previous employer with responsibility for HR who, when I told him that I have depression, said “I’m surprised, Sarah; I didn’t have you down as a weak person”. I enjoyed setting him straight. Weak? How ridiculous. I am one of the strongest people I know. This dog is very demanding and bloody heavy!
So, between you and me, on a rare occasion I have advised a number of clients not to disclose a mental illness to a particular employer when they ask, to put a cross in the “no” box against the “do you have a disability” question on the induction documents: some employers frankly can’t be trusted to behave properly, to not see you as a victim and in need of extra stuff they have to begrudgingly accommodate – like reasonable adjustments - to not discriminate against you because of your occasionally broken but otherwise perfectly capable brain. Why add to your worries?
If they don’t know, they can’t use it against you. Right? Sometimes that's the case, and if you don’t trust your employer not to come out with something like that manager from HR, that could be the right answer until you can trust them, or work for someone you do, and who makes an effort to understand your rights and their responsibilities as employers.
But not disclosing a condition does also mean they can’t support you if and when you need them to, whilst it passes, or whilst you work through it: work can be a wonderful distraction. And really, it’s not like it’s a shameful secret any more – we all have mental health, and at some point most of us have a bit of mental ill-health. In fact, you are much more likely to have a run-in with a temporary brain break than to break a foot, leg, arm or any other bit.
The best thing I did was work for and with people I trust, so that when I feel that slope getting a bit slippery, I can say that I should probably take a couple of days' leave, or explain that I’m going to be unusually quiet for a couple of weeks, but I’ll be fine and I’ll let you know if I need anything. And when I do need that space, I am given it and trusted to look after myself, and ask for help or time or a quiet place to work if I need it. And then we move on. It really isn’t a big deal. Nor should it be.
Mental health is as important as your physical health. The law recognises that. Look after you.