Coping with mental health issues at work
Mental health disorders are surprisingly common: according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 40% of American adults suffer from an anxiety disorder, while more than 20 million Americans have experienced a depressive episode at least once. According to Davis Behavioral Health, the five most common mental health problems in the United States are dementia and anxiety, mood, psychotic disorders, and eating disorders. And the last four are just umbrella terms: “psychotic disorders” include schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, for example, while “anxiety disorders” include OCD, panic disorder, and PTSD.
While some of them may conjure up people who are homeless and drug addicted or having trouble holding down a job, that’s not quite an accurate picture. Many people struggle with these disorders and are also successful professionals, just like you and me.
It’s highly unlikely that you’ll know that’s what they’re going through. Due to stigma, a desire to keep their medical issues a secret, or even the simple belief that work is not the place to talk about mental health as it could impact your career and relationships, many people keep this information to themselves. In my 10 years as a writer and editor, for example, I think I’ve heard maybe two or three colleagues discuss their mental health diagnoses with me and show a willingness to be open. When I speak with friends struggling with their mental health, the consensus is often the same: try not to let work find out.
Mental health and the workplace is one area where I think the generational divide between baby boomers and millennials and millennials is most glaring. My generation (I’m a Millennial) is one of the first to be much more open about mental health (there’s a joke going around the internet that Millennials will just tell you they see a therapist openly, that you ask or not, haha). My parents, on the other hand, were taught not to talk about it. For many older people, mental health issues are scary, they don’t really understand them, and it will derail your professional career. In the worst cases, they are even viewed in a very negative and critical light and presented as character flaws and weaknesses rather than legitimate medical diagnoses.
Starting in 2020, I started noticing a much stronger focus on wellbeing by companies. My excellent employer, for example, sent out surveys on our stress levels as well as a small gift box containing masks and candles for self-care. They went out of their way to make sure staff felt comfortable talking about mental health if they wanted to and really created a non-judgmental environment. And it’s not just an isolated case: according to Harvard Business Review and other reputable publications, addressing mental health, ensuring employees stay healthy and providing support of all kinds is beginning to become the norm in the business world.
Mental health awareness, acceptance, and support are things I’m passionate about, and it’s really important to me that as a member of the DE&I initiative at AccountingWEB, we practice what we preach. And since I’m the editor-in-chief, of course I think a lot about the content. Many wellness and health articles focus on things like burnout or feeling overworked; those are important topics, sure, but they don’t really apply to people who have diagnoses like OCD, bipolar II disorder, panic disorder or major depression and who still come in to work every day and have to do to their symptoms. So here is a list of coping skills for all of you who are professionals struggling with these issues:
Customize your working arrangement
Many people who experience mental health symptoms experience a decrease in their ability to function during an episode. Things that should be simple, like getting up on time, taking care of yourself and your home, and having a normal, productive day can become impossible. If this is something you experience frequently, or if you continually find that a daily commute and office environment exacerbate your symptoms, take control and figure out what would be best for you. Accounting firm owners have many options for how they work, and there is no need to feel pressured to conform to what others are doing. Plus, your customers will be better served and you’ll do a better job when you’re not constantly trying to deal with a situation that isn’t working for you.
Set healthy boundaries
Anyone else remember this? When I was a kid, my parents used to insist that if I wanted to talk to a co-worker or a manager or anything in a similar category to that, do something other than calling on the phone would be incredibly rude and somewhat cowardly. . So for many years I resigned myself to having uncomfortable, unpleasant or even just plain awkward conversations, whether on the phone or in person – no other options. This exacerbated my stress level and made the problem worse. Finally, someone once pointed out to me that texting or emailing isn’t rude: it can be a useful way to set a boundary and make communication both more comfortable and more efficient. You have the opportunity to review what you are going to say, and you don’t have to check the answer immediately. You can choose when you do. Consider this and other similar boundaries that will make managing your working relationships easier.
Do what you can, when you can
Don’t forget: you have an additional challenge that others don’t have to meet. And for many people with mental health issues, it’s a fact that some days are much better than others. Rather than trying to fight through a tough day and do whatever you usually do when your symptoms are more manageable, start chaining the punches and structuring each day so that it’s achievable. If you’re having a particularly tough week, for example, make a schedule that includes only high-priority tasks that can’t wait and that includes room for downtime and self-care. If you’re apprehensive about a project and keep putting it off because of anxiety, set a specific time and day when you absolutely have to tackle it.
The pandemic has hit everyone hard, and if you’ve been particularly hard hit lately, keep in mind that stress exacerbates mental health systems. Be gentle with yourself and put in place coping mechanisms and processes that allow you to take care of your health and your job at the same time.