Normalising Workplace Conversations About Mental Health

I’m filling out a job application and get to the optional question about mental health. I hesitate, unsure whether to answer. I know it’s a company’s way of making sure they’re attracting a diverse range of applicants. Yet part of me is still worried about not being hired if I disclose the fact that I have an anxiety disorder.

It’s not that I’ve actively tried to hide it; I’ve simply spent most of my life “powering through” in the mistaken belief that anxiety was something I had to put up with because “that’s just the way I am”. I was incredibly high-functioning, at least on the surface. In a work setting, that translated to being very organised, always meeting deadlines (quite often earlier than expected), and juggling a lot of things at once. People never suspected anything was wrong (why would they?) and would use words like “reliable”, “efficient”, “trustworthy” and “hard-working” to describe me. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, I would spend days worrying about the tiniest mistake or the idea of a project being anything less than perfect (perfection, of course, doesn’t exist). I’d have constant bouts of impostor syndrome, or exhaust myself by taking on too much work for fear of what people might think if I turned it down. The worst part was that I knew I was in real danger of burning myself out, but I didn’t know what to do about it.

The answer was therapy, a journey I started a year ago, which coincided with my decision to go freelance. It’s taught me some invaluable strategies for managing my anxiety and helped me develop a healthier relationship with my work. Yes, people may still describe me as reliable, efficient, trustworthy, and hard-working (which is good, of course), but now I know I can be all of those things without sacrificing my mental health. If I do find myself slipping back into old habits, I remind myself of a particular time in my life when I was severely sleep-deprived and taking on way too much work. It took a heavy toll on my mind and body, and I don’t ever want to go there again.

I recently had the pleasure of appearing as a guest on the wonderful Daughters of Change podcast with Marie Sola, on which I also happen to work as an editor. We recorded an episode on anxiety (which you can listen to here) and it’s probably the most candid I’ve ever been about my own experience. It was really cathartic for me, and I also hope it helps someone else who may be going through something similar. I feel very strongly about breaking the stigma that still surrounds mental health, and having open and honest conversations about it is one of the best ways we can do that. It’s vital that these conversations also happen in the workplace.

A recent survey conducted here in Ireland by the mental health charity See Change found that  70% of workers were concerned about disclosing a mental health issue to their employer, while 40% said they had witnessed stigmatising behaviour at work. I think my own past reluctance to mention my anxiety in a professional setting stems from the fear of being seen as less competent. I’m sure there are those who feel someone with anxiety couldn’t possibly survive (or indeed thrive) in a high-pressure career like live radio, for example. When you’re in the throes of it, anxiety makes you want to retreat into your comfort zone and “play it safe”, so nothing and nobody has a chance of hurting you. I’ve been there many times. But ultimately, I chose this career path because I’m passionate about it and I know I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. And, in spite of the nagging doubts and uncertainties, I know I’m good at it. Determination to achieve my goals is what drives me when things feel scary, and having anxiety doesn’t mean I can’t be successful in life.

Next time that question comes up on an application form, I hope I won’t be so hesitant about answering it. Maybe someday, there won’t be any reason to fear being honest about our mental health in the workplace.

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