Why is it so hard to ask for mental health support at work?

Dealing with chronic mental health problems at work can be a complicated and nerve wracking problem to navigate. Beth is a sales assistant working in a nation wide store, and struggles with chronic mental health problems. I sat down with her to discuss how she handles her Social Anxiety Disorder and how she got help from people at work when she needed it most.

I understand that you had a particularly bad relapse with your mental health last year. Do you know what triggered that?

To be honest it was a few things. At the time the company was going through some major changes. I had new management and their style was completely different. It became a place that sort of said, “We need results and we need them right now; if you can’t deliver, get out.” The sudden change in approach made it very difficult. Whereas before if I was struggling or having a bad day I could turn around and say, “Look I’m having a bad day,” and they’d say, “No worries go into the warehouse and sort this out,” the new management style was more like, “Tough luck get on with it.”

That must have made it much more difficult to deal with. 

Well, the thing is you don’t feel like you’ve got a safety net anymore. You don’t feel like you’re able to have a bad day as no one will help.

With all the changes going on and the much more unforgiving atmosphere, was there an element of fearing for your job that stopped you telling someone about it? 

Oh yeah. When you’re dealing with anxiety and things like that you’ve already got it in your head that everyone hates you. You’ve already got that paranoia to deal with, so going to someone who is in a position of power above you and saying “I’m really struggling with my mental health” isn’t going to help. You think that they already want to get rid of you, so telling them that gives them a reason to. Of course it’s not true but when you’re dealing with that anxiety it’s stuck in your head.

So what was it that finally prompted you to tell someone? 

Well the only reason I ended up telling people was when I got signed off by the doctor so I had to tell my regional manager why. Even telling my manager before that wasn’t really my decision. She’d been working with me for a long time. She was witness to a lot of the ‘devolving’ if you will. She sat me down and was like “What the hell is going on with you?” So I could either lie and tell her I was fine, or tell her. And she already knew I wasn’t fine so I told her.

What actually happened when you told people? Were they proactive in trying to help you find a solution? 

When I told them I outlined what I wanted to do and they were totally supportive. There were never things offered I had to ask for them, which obviously isn’t the end of the world but when you’re in so deep in that anxiety hole you don’t always know what’s going to help. But when I said what I wanted to do they were good. They went away and two days later called and said right this is what we have done, is this okay?

In hindsight, when do you think you should have or could have gone to someone to talk about it and prevent it from snowballing in the way that it did? 

I mean, I don’t really know. Obviously we have a human resources department and things like that. There are really obvious provisions for people who are physically ill or for if you get injured. You know exactly who to go to and what they can do for you. But there isn’t anything for mental health. At all. So having no clear channel to get help means I don’t think I could have done anything differently.

Do you feel like there is a general lack of knowledge about mental health within the work place? 

People don’t understand the severity of it. If you tell someone you have an anxiety disorder they often just go “Oh yeah me too” without actually knowing what that means. And to a degree, you tell people and then a week later you come into the work place and now they have brushed it off. And even if you’re visibly withdrawn or you’re shaking and they can see it, instead of going “Oh of course, she has an illness,” they just tell you you don’t need to feel like that. They don’t understand the severity or the lack of control.

What do you feel is missing? What could work places do to make it easier to get support and help? 

There needs to be a whistle blowing system essentially. People need to know who they can talk to, that this person is going to be educated about mental health matters, and they need to know that they are going to be able to help them. It needs to be made clear what can be done to help them from a work point of view to make your day to day less hellish. There has to be a system by which people can address these problems, people who are knowledgeable about them, and communication to normal workers about the things that do or don’t exist, and how to access them.