My two experiences of approaching an employer about my mental health could hardly have been more different.
Back in 2002, I was juggling my studies with a full-time job in a call centre. While I loved the camaraderie with my colleagues and the fact I could fit my hours around other commitments, the work was pretty unforgiving; long hours, regular rejection and huge pressure to make sales targets. One evening, without any real understanding of what was happening to me, I dried up in the middle of a call. I couldn’t speak or even breathe properly, I felt sick and hot and my chest was tight.
I learned afterwards I had experienced a panic attack.
A couple of days later, I approached my manager tentatively. I blurted out that I was struggling, not sleeping, feeling under great pressure. Her response was pretty short and to the effect that if I didn’t sort myself out, plenty of others were waiting to fill my shoes.
I’ve reflected a lot on that pretty chastening experience since, and especially when some years later I found the courage to do it again, this time with a much more understanding employer.
I explained I was having a crisis in my life that was impacting on my mental health, and asked if I could be released from the ‘on-call’ roster that required me to be available after hours for one week in every month. Her response, in comparison to my previous experience, was extraordinary. She made me realise I was a highly valued member of the team and was happy to provide whatever adjustments or support I needed. Not only was she true to her word, but she continued for years afterwards to look out for any signs I might be struggling, and intervene gently where she felt it necessary.
Nobody is obliged to disclose a health condition to an employer, and no employer has the right to ask you to. But if you feel it may impact you at work then it makes sense to raise it. Employers have a legal duty to make adjustments to enable staff with a mental health problem to work. While disclosure can be daunting, employers in 2021 are generally more aware of the need for equal opportunities and to be more understanding of diversity in their workplace.
It’s best to come forward in a positive manner; your health condition is nothing to be ashamed of, or to apologise for. Describe how you are managing your condition and what support you already have in place. You may wish to develop, in collaboration withs your employer, a Wellness Action Plan. This enables your manager to better understand your needs, identify warning signs and triggers, and determine the best ways to support you.
More information about how to have this conversation and develop a Wellness Action Plan can be found here. As for my earlier employer, I soldiered on for a couple more weeks until I secured another job. For refusing to value my work or understand my needs and treating me like a number, it was their loss, not mine.