How I used my mental health to improve my work

Steve & Stacey

My job requires me to support volunteers, and to share their life experience of multiple and complex needs. However, I realised that this is something I haven’t really done myself, and so I thought it was about time I changed that.

I have worked in the public and voluntary sector as a paid employee and a volunteer for around ten years. Throughout this I have always suffered from anxiety and depression but for the most part have managed to control this without time off work or medication. During the summer of 2015 I found myself not able to do this anymore. I visited my doctor, got my prescription and was given a sick note at my doctor’s advice. In total I was away from work for 5 weeks (the doctor wanted me to take longer). I was able to give myself time to adjust to my medication, recover as much as I could and generally take some time out.

During my time away from work I started to think about my past jobs and roles within the sector and I realised that I had quite often denied my mental health, to myself, in a work setting and I started to ask myself why? Initially my thoughts were related to the boundaries that we have, with the people that we work with, and by giving away too much information about yourself could potentially cause those boundaries to break down. I also thought of how concerned I was about how my colleagues and seniors would have regarded me, if they knew that I was experiencing anxiety and depression. I also started to think about the relationships I had with customers and volunteers and it dawned on me that by effectively ignoring, hiding or denying my depression and anxiety in the work place I wasn’t giving myself the opportunity to get to know customers and volunteers as well as I could. This then caused me to think about my suitability to work in the sector, which troubled me for some time. Questions such as, how can I support people if I can’t support myself? Is the advice I have been giving to people the right advice? Should I share my lived experience? What about boundaries?

Since returning to work I have managed to find the answers to most of these questions by changing my approach to my own lived experience. Rightly or Wrongly, I have opened up about my experiences with customers and volunteers. I have mentioned some of the difficulties that I have had adjusting to my medication, about coping on a daily basis, and how sometimes I may not be having a ‘good day’. This isn’t to say that I divulge my whole life story to those I work with, and those that may not necessarily have lived experience don’t do an excellent job, in an ever pressured sector, because for the most part they do.

By sharing certain aspects of my lived experienced I have found myself viewed differently by the people I work with. I feel able to build a much better rapport, showing my understanding of the struggles with medication, the anxiety of using public transport or, just having that ‘bad day’. By sharing our experiences volunteers and customers seem more inclined to share their aspirations with me and address their worries more openly. After many years of keeping this to myself, in an employment setting, to me this is a revelation. I except that this is most likely due to how I perceive my own mental health, and I am fortunate that I work in a highly supportive and encouraging team, and with an inspirational group of volunteers and customers.

I guess the point I’m making is that I have realised the way mental health can be viewed within the workplace is often quite negative, and that this can sometimes stifle our potential. I feel that people should be encouraged, positively, to share their experiences and maybe in some way this could challenge the way that mental health in the work place, education, and society in general is addressed. I also realise this is not an analytical blog in any way, and there are many aspects of mental health that need to be recognised and addressed. This is written purely from a view of lived experience, and acknowledgement of how I have viewed, and denied my own mental health, to prevent stigma in the workplace.

We are all human, and we are a species that have the greatest potential to learn, through experience.

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