The First Day
So last week I told you all about my first day fears about returning to work and the techniques I was looking to employ. I’ll be honest, it could have gone better, but it could have been worse. What I want to focus on this week is the things that helped me through. I also want to look at what we can do to help the process of educating employers. There is a huge onus placed on the sufferer to ask for support when they return to work. Maybe this needs to change, or do we as sufferers need to take some responsibility too?
One of the things I have found this week is how often my anxiety tried to spiral. I knew I would be stressed. Who wouldn’t be? But I didn’t anticipate the number of triggers I would encounter. Unfortunately neither did my manager.
The day before I returned to work he texted saying he wouldn’t be in at the start of my shift as planned and he hadn’t been able to get my pass to enter the building reactivated. No big deal you say? To me it was. This meant that instead of being able to return to the office quietly and have the support of my manager in the process, I would be reliant on whichever manager was available to come sign me in. This process would involve me having to report to security and call a manager who knew nothing of why I’ve been absent, let alone involved in my return to work. It also left me blind as to where I would be going once inside, what I was supposed to be doing…. Anything!
On receipt of the text I began to go into meltdown. I hadn’t even started back and I was already hitting into problems. Suddenly brick walls loomed in-front of me, stopping my return. It just added validation to the traitorous voice in my head that was already whispering that no-one wanted me back, that I would be incapable of working.
Now I privately refer to my dark passenger as ‘the b#!ch’. Everyone has that inner voice that sees the worst in us. But with depression, that voice is crueller than the worst bully you have ever met. That voice will torment you beyond imagining, torture you and devalue any worth you have into nothingness. The b#!ch saw this text, bared her teeth and took the opportunity to have a field day.
Here’s the problem though. My manager is not a mind reader! He can have no possible clue as what my mind is doing upon the receipt of one simple text. So how do we fix this? My manager is not going to magically obtain psychic gifts overnight.
The answer is ridiculously simple. I needed to tell him that this was not going to work for me. In my initial panic I couldn’t see this solution. Thankfully, Alex was able to calmly remind me that I could text back and see what other options I had. This basic act, just asking for another option and explaining the problems I was having, helped my manager see it from my perspective and change some things. I went in later to match his start time, when I did get in he took me to my desk via a different wing that was quieter and away from the madness of the main office and my desk was by a window in a corner so I could tuck myself away.
These little adjustments helped. The rest of the day didn’t go perfectly as there is still a large gap between ideal and reality in the return to work process (one thing I appreciate is that my manager is learning as we go along on this) Some areas he downright failed. To come back and find that my systems had not been restored as promised, the contents of my desk missing and often finding I was being left with no structure or support, was fuel to my anxiety.
But I got through. Using fidget spinners, 7-11 breathing and the grounding technique I was able to stay for my phased return hours.
So What Next?
Well, there is a long way to go to be honest. I truly feel there is a lot more that can be done to support sufferers both when they return from illness and on a day-to-day basis at work. I’ll give my boss some credit that at the start of the day he did try. But the business of the office, the pressing needs of other staff meant that all to often I was left rudderless and abandoned.
Too many times I was forced to enter the frantic, loud chaos of the call centre to try and get some help from someone, anyone. I had no e-mail, no phone, no computer systems to do anything. There seemed to be no kind of plan beyond getting me in the building. The lack of organization tripped me out, but I felt I had no avenue to rectify this. On Thursday the total absence of support led to a full-blown anxiety attack before 9am. It was so bad I was unable to speak and rendered so for nearly 2 hours. This is NOT how a first week back should be for anyone.
So what do we do?
The solution is two-fold. Firstly, more needs to be done around educating employers around the subject of mental health. I truly believe that all line managers should be given some training around handling staff that are struggling with mental health issues. If 1 in 4 people in the U.K are suffering from depression , anxiety or any other mental illness the reality is as a manager you are going to HAVE to manage someone afflicted in this way during your career. It is not just the responsibility of Human Resources or Occupational Health. It’s part of your duty of care to your employee to treat them with dignity and respect and to support them in the work place.
The Status Quo? No.
There are unfortunately some managers who do not see the world this way. Some create an atmosphere where there is little tolerance of mental illness, the attitude is if you’re not well enough to do ALL the aspects of your role, then you should just go home. Realistically this is counter-productive. By sending someone home because of mental illness when they are just asking for reasonable adjustments is likely to make them worse. You may as well have just stamped ‘REJECT’ on them because that’s exactly how it will feel.
Management like this is outdated, discriminatory and adding to the growing epidemic of working days lost to mental health problems. I am not saying that you won’t ever not need time off if you are a sufferer (after all I’ve just needed 6 months away from the office to get some semblance of recovery together) but if we could get more companies to seriously look at educating managers on this topic, we could reduce these numbers dramatically. Adjustments can be made, help can be given proactively. It shouldn’t take someone being signed off for months at a time before their mental health condition is taken seriously by their boss.
Secondly, we as sufferers, and supporters of sufferers need to speak up. If your return to work isn’t going well, say so. Be clear on what you need. If no-one is listening or you are struggling to find your voice, speak to H.R or your union. Get someone you trust to help you get what you need to say across. I am saying this as someone who’s first week has not gone great. But when I couldn’t find my voice, a friend helped me get to the right people to give me some guidance. I’m now in the process of arranging a meeting with my boss so we can get some structure and support in place.
We also need to make sure that we have the things we need to cope ready for when we’ll need them. Those healthy coping mechanisms such as the grounding technique, having focus items, breathing techniques all need to be in place too. You have to be at a place where and when things go wrong, we won’t just walk out the door. I came close this week a few times, I may still in the coming weeks too. I guess we have to accept that it will all take time. Educating employers won’t happen overnight and sufferers need to be at the right stage of their recovery. We need to be responsible enough to admit what our limitations may be, what we need as support but feel that we are safe to say so.
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