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Should you tell your employer about a mental health illness?

One Daily Slog reader explains why telling her employer about her Bipolar Disorder from the outset has helped her to manage the daily stresses and pressures of working life. 

 

What type of mental health illness do you have and can you try to explain its symptoms?

At the age of eighteen I was prescribed medication by a psychiatrist to treat depression. At the time I struggled with a variety of symptoms associated with the condition but did not recognise myself as being ‘depressed’. I would struggle greatly to get out of bed in the mornings without having slept a wink the night before. I became increasingly anxious and would worry over the most miniscule things. I became disinterested in my college work and missed lectures frequently, often failing to hand in assignments on time.

It was at this time, when I was about 25 years old, that my diagnosis was reviewed and I was told I was suffering with Bipolar Disorder, or Manic Depression as it is otherwise known. I have a family history of Bipolar Disorder so the diagnosis made sense to me. I finally had some sort of explanation for my extreme behaviours.

 

I was very honest about my condition from the outset. My employers have been very understanding over the years and supportive of my need to take time to manage my illness.

 

How do the symptoms impact on your day to day life?

When I first started working in my current profession I had just been diagnosed with Bipolar disorder. I had been prescribed high doses of anti-depressants for so many years that my mood was most often elevated. I was a hard worker and respected by my employers because I worked all hours of the day and night, rarely sleeping through the night. At the same time, socially I was the life and soul of the party and my energy levels were such that I could stay out all weekend without returning home and still go into work on a Monday morning.

However, it’s true what they say…what goes up must come down. After four years working in a demanding and often stressful role I “burnt out”. At the age of thirty I had a nervous breakdown and was signed off work for five months. During this time I began attending the Dean Clinic at St. Patrick’s Hospital. My medication regime was reviewed and adjusted accordingly and I attended weekly sessions in the hospital for people of all ages newly diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. It was an enlightening experience for me and, in many ways, helped me get my life back on track.

 

I would advise anyone who suffers with a mental health illness to be honest with their employers, as it can often be extremely stressful trying to cope in the workplace without the support of management.

 

Were you open with your employers about your illness when you first started the role?

I started in my current role at the age of 26 and I was very honest about my condition from the outset. My employers have been very understanding over the years and supportive of my need to take time to manage my illness.

 

How do you deal with and manage stress at work? 

For the first four years of my career I worked as a Social Worker in Child Protection and Family Welfare. While I initially enjoyed the challenges this work presented, as time went on I found it increasingly difficult to manage the emotional impact that the role had on my life. Despite the misconception that social work is very rewarding, it is very often a thankless job and I did not manage the frequent abuse I received from service users very well. I was frequently in court when I worked in Child Protection and I also found this very stressful and upsetting at times. Thankfully my transfer to the fostering service within my organisation was accepted when I returned to work following my five months leave and I am now in a role that I enjoy greatly.

As in every job there remains challenges and so it is in my role as a fostering social worker. I have always struggled with confrontation, which is a daily challenge for me in social work. However, I utilise support from my team and my team leader when I know I have a meeting with a particularly difficult client. My team leader is extremely supportive – she recognises my strengths and weaknesses and tailors my caseload to compliment these.

 

From your experience, how would you advise others with mental health issues to deal with their employers – should they be as open as possible or is it best to keep it to themselves? 

I think the fact that I was so open with my employers about the nature of my condition from day one has really helped. They have proven to be very supportive over the years and I can easily approach them if I feel I am struggling.

I would advise anyone who suffers with a mental health illness to be honest with their employers, as it can often be extremely stressful trying to cope in the workplace without the support of management. Also, if you need to take time to manage your illness or attend appointments etc. it is useful for your employer to have this information.

 

Is there still a stigma around mental health issues in the workplace? 

Unfortunately, I do think there is still a stigma attached to mental health illness in the workplace. If you break an arm or a leg it is seen as a valid excuse to take time off work; however if you are suffering with your mental health, you often suffer in silence as it is often difficult for your peers to understand just how much a deterioration in your mental health can impact your day to day life.

I think there is light at the end of the tunnel however as there is certainly more awareness now around mental health issues than there was even 10 years ago. My experience of managing my mental health in the workplace and my employer’s response has been, thankfully, very positive. However, I do appreciate that not everyone will have the same experience. Nonetheless I would encourage anyone who is struggling with their mental health in the workforce to be as open as they feel comfortable about being with their employers, as they may just give you that additional support you require.

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