Me, Work and Mental Illness

BBC article – How mental health costs up to 300,000 jobs a year

I tried to do some research of my own, this proved quite difficult. So here is a report I found which had already done it for me! thriving-at-work-stevenson-farmer-review.pdf

This report mentions Aviva as having a support strategy in place. I would also like to add Unilever to that list.

My work life is littered with breakdowns, sackings and extremes of brilliance versus ineptitude. I realise that by posting this publicly I am shooting myself in the foot if I ever decide to go back to work, as my official CV glosses over the real reasons for changing jobs. But isn’t that just a reflection of the fear and stigma of owning up to being mentally unwell, and shouldn’t this be challenged?

After leaving school I went to college. I wanted to work with children and started a Nursery Nursing Examinations Board course. This involved spending a term at a local Primary pre School for the 4-5 year olds. I was an assistant to the teachers and got involved in the daily lives of the children. I loved it. But it didn’t like me. It involved a lot of creativity – having to plan and help with art projects. I love art but looking at it and trying to create it are not the same thing. Also, I wasn’t eating properly. I think at that time breakfast didn’t happen, lunch was an apple, and dinner was the least I could get away with eating in front of my parents. I don’t know why everything went wrong but it was probably something to do with the lack of food exacerbating my depression which combined to affect my concentration and performance.

So I found a job. It was local and my mother would drop me off in the car on her way to work. I was eating even less at this point and I remember one morning when I really didn’t want to go to work. Mum dropped me off, I waved goodbye to her and as soon as she was out of sight I went for a very long walk. There was no phone call from me to say that I wasn’t going in because at that time I didn’t understand what was happening and my eating disorder made it normal for me to hide the truth. The company I worked for put up with me for a year or two, but poor performance eventually lead to my dismissal. This is probably a direct result of weighing about 6 stone and being depressed. My brain was unable to function properly and I had memory problems and made frequent mistakes.

Then my mum got me a job at the company she worked for. She had worked there ever since I was 4 or 5 and I had visited her at work a few times during the school holidays. I already knew some of the people who worked there. They needed holiday cover for about 6 months. I was there 5 years. This was a job I excelled at, but I made it very difficult for myself. My drinking and sexuality “flourished” in this period. I was working in a family run business which employed about 100 people, 85% of them men. I knew everybody who worked there and they all knew me. Some better than others if you get my drift. Christmas parties were all day drinkfests until the pubs wouldn’t accommodate us any more. Then we just caused havoc in a local football club instead. I have memories of anxiety and over confidence at this time. To get to the ladies loo you had to walk through the shop floor. Sometimes this caused me huge anxiety. But at the same time I was flirting and bantering with everyone. One of my contradictory phases I think.

Possibly because of my mum’s relationships with the directors of the company, my absences due to depression and hospitalisation weren’t an issue. Until I got a new boss. I don’t entirely understand this, but I didn’t like my new boss. I’m usually a very easygoing, accepting person, someone who is not quick to judge. But there was something about this woman who rubbed me up the wrong way from the start. Then I needed time off for medical reasons. Whenever you were absent from work due to sickness you had to complete a form stating the medical reason for your absence. I didn’t want people to know, so I decided to ask for a day’s holiday. I thought that no one would ask questions that way. But my boss refused to let me take holiday that day and I didn’t understand why. I can’t remember how it got resolved, but I attended my medical appointment on a Friday and was back to work on Monday. I probably shouldn’t have been because I remember being in pain until the following day, but I soldiered on.

On the Wednesday I felt a lot better. And that is the day I had a huge argument with my boss. I had gone ahead with something without allowing her to check it first (maybe this was what troubled me about her, she didn’t trust me to be able to do things on my own?). I flipped massively. I made a huge fuss and said I didn’t want to work with her and I left. There and then, I went for a walk to calm myself (didn’t work).

I got myself another job. There was a similar pattern of mostly good work interspersed with weird, inept moments. A similar pattern of depression and drinking. I was made redundant, which I think is the only true reason for leaving on my CV. Another job followed, this time in the film industry. I was working in a support service in a film studio complex and loved it. I got an insight in to the world of film and we visited a couple of film sets. The team I worked with was small and very supportive. It was like a little family. Then one of my clients head hunted me. This was my opportunity to combine work and pleasure and get paid huge amounts of money. The film industry then was a closed, uncertain, stressful world. It was mostly about who you knew, and each project lasted a matter of months. I don’t think I thought about the between projects moments. My first film job was for a BBC production. I got on well with my new boss and we went on set a couple of times. I met the cast and crew. I was working hard but having a great time. Then we moved on to a Hollywood film which was being shot on location in England. I joined at the pre-production stage. The work was manageable to start with, but as the production moved forward I was asked to do more and more. I was under quite a lot of pressure and responsibility. I would start at 8am (I still don’t know how I did this, as getting out of bed in the morning is not one of strong points) and a 12 hour day was the norm. Then I would go home, get drunk, go to sleep and turn up at 8am the next day.

Then one Wednesday I arrived at my desk and burst in to tears. The pile of paperwork had grown overnight and I crumbled. Massively and publicly. The nature of the industry being driven by time schedules and money, there wasn’t the option for me to take a couple of weeks to recover, so that was the end of my dream job.

It hit me hard. I remember feeling broken for months. I would stare in to space for hours, I had the shakes and I felt constantly nauseous. I withdrew into myself and communication was difficult.

I was conscious that I needed to work. I had just moved house and bills needed to be paid. I had lived for a while on my savings, but knew they wouldn’t last for ever. So I got another job. It lasted a week. I wasn’t really ready to go back to work. I remember not really knowing what to do. I would look at the paperwork in front of me and it just looked like gobbledygook. Sacked again. Then I started temping. This was easier. Every couple of weeks I would have a new challenge and I was never in one place long enough to allow them to see my true self. I worked, got praised and moved on.

So now we come to Unilever. It started as another temporary role. I stayed 10 years. I think I was made permanent after about a month.

William Hesketh Lever started a soap factory in Warrington in the late 1880s. He was a forward thinking employer, he built a small village for his workers and was interested in their welfare. Now a multi national company, its emphasis on employee welfare has continued.

We had an on site nurse. Once a month I had to work in a small room with a very noisy, temperamental machine. We were given earplugs and all trooped down to the nurse for a hearing test. I became a regular visitor, but for other reasons.

I don’t remember exactly how my visits to the nurse started, I think I was told to go and see her. There was a redundancy scare. I reacted badly and found myself becoming ill and taking more and more time off. The nurse referred me to the company Doctor, who I also got to know quite well, and I was also referred for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. All of these appointments were office based, I’d just go downstairs to the Occupational Health Department and then go straight back to work. I think this is the best thing that had ever happened to me. Over the years I had seen various counsellors, psychotherapists and psychiatrists, but it was sporadic. I would decide that I didn’t want to see them any more because it was too upsetting and I would be tearful and low for a few days.

But with Unilever it was different. Some of the sessions were still quite painful, but I had developed positive relationships with the whole team. I don’t know why this worked when everything else hadn’t, perhaps it was the support network and the understanding of my line managers. Maybe the ease of access had something to do with it.

I was also encouraged to use my private healthcare for psychiatry treatment. I had a whole team of people helping me to understand myself and create a way of living that worked for me. And at the same time I was working hard and creating a good impression. My psychiatrist decided that I had an alcohol problem. I don’t know how he reached this conclusion because I don’t remember ever discussing my alcohol intake with him. He suggested I go for treatment. No thanks.

But the idea stayed with me. I carried on drinking and after a series of alcohol related injuries I decided that perhaps I did have a problem after all. My psychiatrist arranged for me to be a patient at a well renowned private hospital and Unilever backed me all the way. In the end I was in hospital for 5 weeks and Unilever agreed to fund me through private healthcare for the extra week. Then there was about a month where I was on day release, a few days at hospital as an outpatient with a staggered return to work.

That was 2008 and they got 5 more years out of me. In that time I continued with CBT, continued with private psychiatry and continued to be supported and understood at work. My colleagues accepted me for what I was. Having been a party animal one minute and then coming back to work sober was hard to ignore. And my absences for medical appointments together with some of my mood swings and physical appearance were all too apparent. But I was accepted and supported by everybody. Even new colleagues who weren’t aware of my history were aware that I suffered from depression, but it never held me back in the workplace.

Then in 2013 a family event triggered an attack of anxiety. Taking time off work for my depression/bipolar/Borderline Personality Disorder (diagnoses changed from time to time) was nothing new. But this was different. I was unable to contemplate ever going back to work, and a couple of weeks became a couple of months, became a year. All this time Unilever were supporting me, for a lot of the time they were still paying me, and we had regular meetings to try to find a way to get me back to work. They never gave up on me. But I made a decision. I was feeling guilty that they were putting all this effort in for me and I was still feeling scared about the prospect of returning to work. So I was honest with them and the result was termination of employment on mutual grounds.

So now, here I am today. I still have no desire to work, I don’t think I could. Yes, I have moments of productivity, but they are interspersed with naps during the day and periods of low mood. I am able to be productive at my own pace. There are no deadlines or responsibilities and the only pressure is that which I inflict upon myself. This piece has evolved over 2 days. Yesterday was particularly difficult as there were a few moments of emotional overload. And I’m thinking that maybe once this has been published I might go for a little nap. I get drained quite quickly.

Writing this has shown me that a supportive work environment makes a huge difference. It didn’t cure my depression but it provided me with the tools to be able to cope. People with mental illness are driven, creative people. They just need an environment where they are allowed to flourish.


If you would like your employer to create a supportive workplace, here are some tools to help you convince them to sign the Time to Change Employer Pledge.

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