Managing your own mental health at work is a mixed bag. In the best of situations, you would have a boss and colleagues who understand how important good mental health is and how it is normal to struggle from time to time with intense feelings or mental illness. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Sometimes employees become labeled as a “problem employee” if they show emotion at work or need to take time off to attend to mental health. I have a friend who set off an HR crisis when he requested PTO for a “mental health day”. His HR representative believed that only physical illness is an acceptable reason to take a day off. After months of meetings and emails, he won. (A word to my HR friends, unmanaged mental health and illness can lead to physical illness. Maybe allowing a mental health day off would prevent absences for physical illness. Think about it.)
Eric Ravenscraft, writing for the New York Times, recently wrote a wonderful piece on the challenges of managing mental illness at work. He is open about his struggles with living with his own mental health challengs. The author also details the legal protections that exist to protect people with mental illness and strategies to help minimize the risk of discrimination due to mental health issues in the workplace. You can read the full article here: https://nyti.ms/2L9QIio
I am continuing this conversation by providing you with some additional information about how to be prepared for a mental health situation or crisis at work.
BE ALERT: Every person, whether or not they have a diagnosed mental illness, has what I call “activators” - those situations, people, and memories that can activate uncomfortable or intense emotional reactions. These reactions are different for everyone - feelings of sadness or anger, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, etc. In response to these activators, a person’s nervous system is the first place the trigger is detected. The nervous system response is the warning sign that it is time to engage coping strategies or calming techniques. It is important to respond to the nervous system alarm because once the brain starts processing the crisis, logical and rational responses are difficult to maintain. How do you know when your nervous system is being activated? It is different for everyone. Some people get a tingling feeling in their arms or legs. Some people get an upset stomach. Maybe you feel tight in your throat or a warm sensation throughout your body. If you start to notice these physical reactions, you will get better over time at detecting them quicker.
PLAN AHEAD: Your employer most likely has an established “disaster plan” for how the organization will respond if a disaster occurs. I have my own personal “disaster plan” for when I am feeling activated at work or in a social situation. I often recommend to clients that they create one for themselves. Knowing ahead of time of how you will respond when activated at work can sometimes provide some personal reassurance and help you get through the day. What works for you? Deep breathing techniques, a walk around the block, aromatherapy, calling a friend, a few minutes of alone time somewhere private, listening to music - if it works for you, then do it!
Here are some additional suggestions about how to manage mental health at work:
- Know your employer’s leave time policies. Does your employer offer separate vacation and sick leave banks? Can PTO be used for any reason? Is your employer required to follow FMLA laws?
- If you are a new employee, be mindful of any required probationary period and do the best you can to keep a low profile about your mental health issues IF you think your employer may not be all that supportive with your needs.
- Know your mental health triggers. Are there certain situations or people that can potentially activate some uncomfortable feelings or trigger an emotional spiral? Being aware of these activators can help you plan ahead for how to manage the situation ahead of time.
- Know your nervous system. Pay attention to your own body’s warning signs that something doesn’t feel quite right or that an activator is present so you can deploy your coping strategies.
- Be kind to yourself. You are not alone. Everyone, and I mean everyone, struggles with mental health issues from time to time (even those who are “faking it” and look “fine” all of the time.)
Be well, my friends.