Dealing with a mental health diagnosis at work: Lessons learned
1 in 5 people are dealing with a mental health condition. Imagine how many of those people are in the workforce! You may have already been diagnosed with one and are trying to manage it while working, or your job may be the cause of your mental health decline for one reason or another. Either way we bring our mental health conditions to work each day, and if it is not appropriately and quickly addressed with leadership, you will suffer, and your work will suffer as was the case for me.
I recently and briefly wrote about my experience of being newly diagnosed with PTSD and trying to manage my symptoms while working in a stressful environment with little to no support from any level of management. On top of that, I was dealing with a very demanding and challenging workload that was not an appropriate match for my experience level (which my managers SHOULD have known). I will preface this by saying that while they did not know of my diagnosis beforehand (and neither did I), we were all very much aware of the challenges and stress I was dealing with for about a year. To that end, I am not going to point fingers and play the blame game because I think we all played a part in how poorly my situation was handled. Instead, I have decided to look at this as an learning opportunity, and to share my experience in the hopes of helping others who may be faced with a similar challenging situation of trying to manage employment with a mental health condition. The list below details what I wished I had done in order to better protect myself.
Identify the issue, and address it as soon as possible with your manager. If your managers are not responsive or receptive to your concerns, go directly to HR.
While I frequently addressed my concerns of stress with my manager for at least a year, I was always told “you’re doing fine”, and “I am working on it”. I never received an update on what was actually being done, and instead I was always checking for updates. RED FLAG! I trusted that my manager was working behind the scenes on a restructuring of the department workload when nothing (that I could tell) was actually happening. If you are not seeing tangible actions being taken to address your concerns take it to your manager’s boss. If that person is not addressing your concerns go to HR. Do not wait it out.
Start a paper trail.
The very moment you bring your concerns to your boss start a log of your conversations. If you send an email, save the email. If you have a face to face conversation, make a note of the conversation and the outcome. I made the mistake of NOT doing this. Save your performance reviews. Save anything that references your concerns, and challenges so it is clear that you are proactively trying to address them. This will also hold leadership accountable.
Get a doctor’s (primary care or therapist) note that specifically asks for an accommodation so it is in writing. Address the request first with HR to determine how to approach your manager.
Mental health conditions are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. While they do not specifically state which ones, there is a list of criteria. Womenshealth.gov provides a clear explanation. There are also criteria about what are considered reasonable accommodations.
If you are returning to work from a leave of absence, don’t assume that your managers or HR department will take a proactive approach in ensuring your success going forward.
When I returned to work from a 6 week leave of absence there was literally no plan in place to integrate me back into the organization so that I continued to succeed. I had done so well for 7 years, and all I wanted to do was get back to that. However, I received no support from colleagues (particularly leadership), and it took almost 3 weeks for my director to speak to me, and even then we talked about an upcoming vacation, and I was encouraged to find work that I was passionate about — RED FLAG! When I asked for a restructuring of my workload they were hesitant, but agreed, AND then asked me to temporarily take more work. I was literally floundering, unable to catch my footing, which ultimately led to my resignation. If your managers are not being receptive to your request, and it is clear that they did not consider a plan for success for you, get HR involved to discuss your options and any next steps.
Additional things to consider if all else fails.
I hesitated to add this in because I want to make sure you cover all of your bases before taking this next step. If you have exhausted all of your options, leave. Now, out of desperation I left without a job lined up. This is not what I would recommend. If you feel like you have some time, hit the gas pedal on your job search. The sooner you get out the better. If you can’t wait it out, resign. Just know that you will be entering into the unknown financially, and there is no telling when you will get your next job.
While I do not recommend this, if you have money in a 401K, think about withdrawing some to help you get by. Make sure you understand the rules of your plan before doing this.
You may qualify for unemployment if you left for a good reason. Just consider all of your options if you take this route. Leaving a job without one lined up is a scary place to be, and I am kind of terrified right now.
Lastly, if you feel you have been discriminated against, here is a list of resources. I added this in to cover all bases, but this is not something I have or will consider doing personally.
IMPORTANT: Believe in yourself! You deserve to succeed just like everyone else. Remind yourself that you are capable, and have a lot to offer your current an future employers.
Remember that you are not your diagnosis or condition. What you have to contribute to the world and any future employer is what matters. You deserve to be successful. You deserve gainful employment. If you current employer doesn’t see your value, they don’t deserve you.
I had 7 years of pure success at my last job. SEVEN YEARS. I experienced a tremendous amount of growth, and had ZERO negative remarks in my employee record. I participated in extracurricular activities like toy drives, summer outings, and holiday parties. I volunteered my free time to help support the meetings team at our large conference, and regularly attended professional development conferences. I experienced a downfall that I could not get up from without the support of my employer, and I started to believe that I was incapable of succeeding. I believed that all I had accomplished meant nothing. Right now I am still challenged with those thoughts and have to remind myself that I am smart, creative, resourceful, a fast learner, and have a drive to succeed. My future employer will be lucky to have me.
NOTE: Any opinions and advice detailed here are based off of my own personal experience. I advise you to consider other resources as means of helping you take your best course of action.
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, know that you are not alone! Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — 800.273.8255
The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.