Interview with Beth Keogh: How do you ask for help with mental health in the work place ?
Dealing with chronic mental health problems in the workplace can be complicated to navigate. Beth works in a nation-wide store in sales and has struggled with chronic mental health problems for quite some years. I sat down with her to discuss how she handles her Social Anxiety Disorder and how she got help from those she worked with when she needed it most.
I understand that you had a particularly bad relapse in mental health last year. Do you know what precipitated 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 really 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 to the stock room 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 stricter 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 because 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 say Oh nothing I’m fine, or tell her. And she already knew I wasn’t fine.
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 this is what I want 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 snowballing like that?
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 if you get injured. You know exactly who to go to and what they can do. 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 as even if I’d had the confidence to find help, I wouldn’t have known who to turn to.
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 go Oh yeah me too, without actually knowing what it means. And to a degree you tell people, and then a week later you come into the work place and despite having already told people a week ago, they’ve now 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 go oh you shouldn’t need to feel like that, you don’t need to worry. They don’t understand the severity.
What do you feel is missing? What could workplaces 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’re going to be able to help them and what they can do for 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.