Managers & Mental Health

Things I wish my manager knew…

Six years ago, a sudden tragic event happened to me, and then didn’t leave me. My therapist diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder. I had to seek counselling for about six months.

The day the event happened was terrible enough. It didn’t stop there. Slowly, it took over my life. I was angry, irritable, and in physical pain. The trauma became a constant yoke across my shoulders and in my head. I stopped sleeping through the night, waking up in tears night after night. I could not focus on anything. This went on for months before I decided to get help.

The sleepless nights piled up over months, leaving me exhausted

That decision to get help, though, came with a whole heap of complications in the workplace. I sent a short confidential note to my boss. I informed him that I needed to leave work promptly for medical appointments. I didn’t specify what type. I informed him I aimed to do them after office hours as much as possible. All I asked for was his support of me leaving on time, something which was not usually done in our team.

He forwarded that email to HR, without even speaking to me. The next thing I knew someone called me and “suggested” that I be evaluated for fitness for work. They made it clear it wasn’t mandatory. As no one had spoken to me at all, I felt trapped and agreed. I then had to see two counselors for three weeks. I felt one was mandated to me in order to stay “fit” for work, and then other of my choice.

His lack of support didn’t stop there. He proceeded to assign me the lead on a high-priority project. He left it to me to figure out how to work with others on my team. I had to assign different pieces of the project to them. I had to ask them to work late hours while I left on time, to keep up with my treatment.

I tried my best to work with him. I researched a bunch of materials about how to manage staff with mental health issues. I printed them and gave them to him to read. He was uncomfortable speaking to me about any of it. He shut down my concerns about his lack of support during this trying time. I concluded I had to share my situation with the team members. It was the only way I could find a way through the project and maintain my relationship with them.

I wrote this story for the first time two years ago and shared it anonymously at work. This year, for world mental health day, I want to speak aloud to managers. As a former manager myself, I know how hard managing people can be. I hope by being open about my experiences, it will make managers more aware and better prepared to manages other like me.

I want to tell managers five things:

  • I want to tell managers that this will happen to you. It’s an unfortunate reality of our world. Given the number of people who will have a mental health issue, you will have to deal with this. Please, prepare yourself now.
  • I want managers to be human, to place that at the center of the conversations an employee is having with you. This isn’t a problem which you can delegate to someone else to deal with.
  • I want to tell managers to ask how they can help, and then actually do what will help the employee get through the day. All I ever asked for was the support to leave the office on time. I never got it, and looking back, I should have asked for more.
  • Managers should know the resources which are available to assist their staff. More and more companies offer counselling and support. However, they should never assume that an employee “needs” the resources. The member of staff might have their own treatment plans. They may not feel comfortable sharing them with you. Educate yourself, make the offer, and respect their response.
  • Managers need to respect the desire of the individual to keep the situation private. I never trusted that manager again. I had to sit down and tell my team what was going on, one after another, and ask for their support. This broke my trust with my manager, and it never recovered.

Today, I am in a better place. There are still days where I get anxious. The event sneaks up into my awareness and I have to find a way manage through it again. But most days are fine and I’ve regained my sense of equilibrium, my sense of self.

What happened to me was worse than it needed to be because of my manager’s actions. I hope by sharing my story and my messages, others do not have to go through the same experiences. I hope other managers can learn and prepare. Maybe someday, someone else’s experience is easier because of a better boss than the one I had. I hope in a small way, my experience can help make that possible.