Overcoming Mental Health Hurdles at Work

Originally given as a talk at AlterConf in Oakland, CA

TRIGGER WARNING: depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts


Some Background

I’ve lived with anxiety for as long as I can remember. I was the child who cried during emergency drills at school because my brain actually went into emergency mode; I couldn’t handle the thought of not being able to say goodbye to loved ones. I would become physically ill worrying about the well-being of others, things I had done wrong, and internally-fabricated impending doom. For the most part, it didn’t really have a major impact on my life until high school when I started experiencing panic attacks. My condition worsened through college (exacerbated by an abusive relationship), incorporating a depression component, and by my fourth year I was on prescribed medication and seeing a therapist once a week. These helped immensely, but I barely made it to graduation.

I spent much of my time either exhausted and unable to concentrate thanks to anxiety-induced insomnia, or too empty to interact with my surroundings, let alone absorb knowledge. This was so strange to me as someone who spent the majority of childhood with my nose in a book, thirsty for new information. I was always a high-functioning, type-A personality and now that part of myself had taken a big step back. I’d try to tap into it, getting excited about projects and keeping myself busy only to crumble under the weight of my tasks’ collective responsibilities. Every day was a constant battle where I would either be feeling too many emotions at once or none at all.

Despite these struggles I somehow managed to land my dream job just after graduation. Things fell into place. I had renewed hope. I excelled during the first six months at my new job. I soaked up information and threw myself into implementing new features and fixing bugs. I made great work relationships and felt comfortable and well-supported with my colleagues. I was living the life I had been dreaming of during those dark college days.

And then my medication stopped working.


Reaching out is scary

This was my posting on a depression forum from June 2014, when I started noticing my mental health having a significant impact on my work:

This is my first real job out of college and I absolutely love the work I do as well as my colleagues. However, I still feel useless and listless. All I have energy and motivation to do is sleep. I can easily sleep 18+ hrs a day. Some days I knock things out of the park; I make it to work, get tons done, help others, etc. Most days I feel like a waste of space.
I’m in a mental space where I don’t like myself at all. I don’t feel good. I feel detached and empty. I spend the majority of what little energy I have (no will/interest in eating either, heh) on trying my best to pretend that everything is fine.
I don’t want my colleagues to think that I don’t like or care about my job. It’s literally perfect. I don’t like how little I’ve been able to accomplish lately. How can I have an honest and frank discussion with my superiors about my mental state and still have them trust me to get things done and value me as an employee?
I’m feeling so lost here and this job is seriously the best thing I have in my life. What do I do?

The overwhelming response to this post was essentially, “don’t do it; you could get fired.”

My mental health continued to deteriorate and the additional anxiety from feigning effectiveness crushed me completely. I stopped getting out of bed. I stopped eating. I obsessed about suicide options. I wrote goodbye letters.


You told your boss WHAT?!

After looking at my workplace and determining, as detailed below, that it is probably unlike other places that might let the stigma of mental illness affect their treatment of employees, I decided to approach one of our founders (Matt). I did this outside of any depressive episode, so I felt that I had a handle on things and felt comfortable talking about my struggles in somewhat past tense.

This interaction set the precedent for all other experiences I’ve had with sharing my obstacles with my colleagues. I brought it up somewhat casually, as it’s difficult to admit these kinds of problems to people when you are so used to internalizing them. I explained my anguish over my technical performance and how passionate I was about my job.

Matt didn’t mention my performance at all. The conversation was quickly focused on my well-being and health, and the team’s willingness to work with me during my low points.

The title of this section is inspired by my mother’s reaction to my telling her I came clean about my struggles with one of the founders. She was absolutely horrified that I would put myself at risk for marginalization. It took a lot of reassuring her that my case was different.


Internal improvements

Our talk spurred a team-wide conversation about mental and emotional obstacles. Another coworker joined Matt and I in presenting our experiences with bipolar disorder, burnout, and anxiety and depression, respectively. We talked about what we go through, what it looks like from the outside (so it would be easier for our colleagues to infer what might be happening based on our behavior), how to be helpful during episodes, and different treatment options. We also did some work on our policies on medical leave to explicitly include mental and emotional problems.

“Mental health and emotional struggles are treated like any other illness, because that is what they are.”

Confidence in my work environment

I feel incredibly lucky that my personal experience has played out this way. I know that it is more the exception than the rule. However, I’d like to offer my story as an instance of successful mental health management in the workplace as I didn’t really have any encouraging examples when I was making my decision to be open about my struggle.

The following section details some markers I relied on to give me the confidence to come forward about my personal problems. I think they are pretty indicative of a positive work environment and are certainly a good start if you’re looking for things to push for at your own workplace.

Vibrant internal culture

Chilling out at our company retreat

We have a strong focus on internal culture; we want our team to feel happy and balanced. This is best demonstrated through our Core Values, which are guidelines we live by at work. They help foster the supportive, empathetic, empowering atmosphere that I’ve come to know and love.

They are:

Chill out
Help each other
Assume good faith
Make it happen
Practice empathy
Speak your mind

These come through constantly during my work days. On Mondays during our team meeting we start with a “kudos” section where we mention things others did during the week that we appreciated. During code reviews or project meetings, everyone’s voices are heard without losing sight of our common goals. The internal presentation on mental health was met with nothing but support from my teammates.

Flexibility

Flexibility at work is something that I’ve always used as a good indicator of companies who care about their employees. Productivity isn’t attained by some one-size-fits-all environment. My needs change day-to-day, even. Some days I need to sit at a desk in the office with other people to energize and motivate me. Other days my anxiety prevents me from effectively interacting with people and I work best in bed with a cat next to me.

Working at the office and working at home. I’m usually most effective working on the couch.

I have the freedom to choose which hours I work and where I work them. If I’m sick, I don’t have to feel guilty about taking that time off. Our policies offer a lot of opportunities to customize work environments and achieve healthy work/life balance. We even have a vacation incentive, rewarding people for taking a consecutive work week completely off the grid, to prevent burnout.

I prevented burnout last year at Sasquatch Music Festival in Washington

I think this deviation from strict work practices shows support of individualism and creativity and demonstrates its recognition that work/life balance is important. These policies encouraged me to take care of myself, and made me feel that they genuinely wanted me to feel well and do well.

Focus on people

Where our flexibility and internal culture were no-brainers when I was thinking of things that made me comfortable enough to share such personal details of my life, our focus on people is something I recognized after-the-fact as a factor in my decision. We’ve been working really hard to craft a mission statement lately, and all of the language is tightly focused on people, both inside and outside of our organization.

Our collective mission is three-fold:

  • To help people make Happy Customers through personality, authenticity, and mutual understanding
  • To be active in the communities around us by learning from and sharing lessons with everyone we meet
  • To exemplify a positive organization by creating a safe space to speak, listen, empathize, and build each other up

I knew that my teammates cared about me personally based on my previous observations, but the realization that Olark’s concern could be generalized and applied to all people really made me feel safe.


A work in progress

To be honest, writing this was extremely difficult for me. I was amidst one of the longest and most severe depressive episodes I’ve experienced. I by no means claim to be an authority on mental health or overcoming its effects. I’ve spent a large portion of this past year feeling disconnected from the world, hollow and apathetic. I’ve stopped attending to even my most basic needs for weeks at a time. I’ve removed myself from social situations, including interactions with my coworkers, friends, and even family. I’ve stayed up till the wee hours of the morning, gripped by anxiety, unable to sleep or move or think.

I struggle with illness. Just as the flu would prevent me from completing my work, so do my depression and anxiety.

I have gotten to a place where I feel comfortable sharing my experience and letting people know when I’m not doing well. I have shorn that source of stress and no longer worry about others, especially at my job, thinking I don’t care or don’t like what I am doing.

It feels so good to know how well-supported I am at work, and that I really do have the power to make things happen.

After repeatedly being told to keep my problems to myself for fear of discrimination, it’s good to know that it actually is possible to be open about mental health (even at work!) and have healthier relationships and less stress for it.

Since AlterConf

I was in a pretty dark place from late-December until mid-February. AlterConf (Jan 31) was a ray of light thanks to the outpouring of support I received from attendees and my coworkers. However, chronic depression and anxiety don’t really take cues from life events. My depressive episode stretched on.

Intrusive suicidal thoughts pressed into my daily life nearly constantly. I was spinning my wheels on my current project at work. My living situation was detrimental to my mental health. Traveling and the holidays had prevented me from seeing my therapist for three weeks in a row. I just wanted to give up.

During this episode, Olark lived up to its words and worked to help me improve my mental state.

Matt made a lot of adjustments to help me get healthy again. He started checking in with me daily to see how I was doing and whether he could help. He encouraged me to transition onto another project that would provide me with easily identifiable action items and more resources if I needed help. He also reminded me to take time to decompress and recharge.

I don’t think I’m ever going to be 100% mentally healthy. This is going to be a lifelong struggle for me. However, I’ve seen first-hand that mental health can be recognized and managed in all facets of life, including the professional sphere.

If you struggle with mental illness, know that there are people out there who strive to make their workplace empathetic and supportive. You should never feel like you can’t address your emotional well-being because “it’s just not something you talk about at work.”

Madalyn

I am a web developer, Michigander, and feminist fueled by live music (and coffee) and at the constant beck and call of my pet rabbits and cat. I’ve been part of Olark’s engineering team since January 2014.

Feel free to reach out to me if you’d like! I’d love to hear other perspectives.

Twitter: @madalynrose