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Talking about mental health in the workplace

Opening up about mental health at work can feel hard, but it can have some incredible benefits. Kat Nicholls discusses how talking about her mental health in the workplace helped her feel better

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Happiful 

During my interview for a content-writing position here at Happiful I was asked the standard question, ‘Why do you want to work here?’ and I immediately explained that I’d struggled with my mental health in the past and wanted to write articles that could help other people.

I know I’m luckier than most. Working for an organisation with mental wellbeing at its core does make it more convenient to bring up the subject of mental health – but I wouldn’t say it automatically makes it easy.

We spend so much of our days writing, researching and supporting others with their mental health, sometimes our own takes a back seat. When I first started my job here, I found it pretty easy to talk about my past experience of an eating disorder and even recorded a video talking about it.

I was ‘in it’ and it took me a while to even recognise what was happening. One day, it all got too much and I told the HR manager that I needed to go home and book a doctor’s appointment. Of course, Happiful were more than understanding and provided lots of support as I sought cognitive behavioural therapy.

At the timeI was managing a small team of writers and I realised I needed to let them know what was going on. Since then, I’ve got a better handle on my anxiety but it’s still something I live with day–to-day; I have the odd rough patch and really notice the way it affects my approach to work.

According to the Mental Health Foundation nearly 15% of the workforce are experiencing mental health problems and nearly 13% of all sickness absence days in the UK are due to mental health conditions – so I’m certainly not alone in my experience. Talking to people about this, and encouraging others to do the same (I now run the Wellness Ambassador team at Happiful) has, however, made my working life undoubtedly better. Here are five things I learnt from talking about my mental health at work.

You have to take your whole self to work

It can be tempting to shelve your feelings when you’re having a bad day, put a smile on your face and carry on. The thing is, this rarely works. I realised pretty early that the more I tried to hide my anxiety, the more intensely I would feel it.

I’ve learnt that anxiety is a part of me and I need to bring my whole self to work. Being honest about how I am is not only less exhausting, it ensures everyone knows where I’m at. If someone asks me how I’m doing now, I tell the truth. If I’m feeling a bit anxious, I’ll say so. Then, if I need to go out for more walks, or hide in my headphones, at least my colleagues know why. They can also look out for me and check in from time-to-time, in case I need someone to talk to.

If you live with a mental illness it’s not something you can leave at home. Being honest with yourself and your colleagues about how it affects you and your work can help everyone to better understand the situation.

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Talking about your mental health gives others permission to do the same

As soon as I started being more open with others in the company about my anxiety, the more stories I heard about other people’s anxiety. It turns out, there are quite a few of us in the office in the same boat. Often, hearing someone else come forward about their experience makes others feel more comfortable talking about their own.

As well as feeling less alone, those of us with anxiety can discuss different tactics we’ve used to manage symptoms, and how we deal with it day-to-day.

Managing mental health at work is a two-way partnership

We’re often told about the importance of speaking up about mental health at work, but what happens after you’ve done that? I learnt it really is about coming together as employee and employer to manage your workplace wellbeing.

It’s not about telling your manager and expecting them to do all the work; you need to communicate with them and find ways of ensuring your needs are met. A great way to do this is by filling out a wellness action plan.

You need to set your own boundaries

This ties in with the lesson above – it’s imperative to set, and communicate, your boundaries, especially if work is playing a part in your mental illness. When I spoke to my managers about my mental health, the questions they always asked were ‘What do you need?’ and ‘How can we support you?’ so it was up to me to figure this out and communicate it to them.

Have a think about what needs to change to ensure your wellbeing is taken care of and discuss this with your manager. There may need to be compromises made, but your workplace should make reasonable adjustments.

Talking about your mental health normalises it and reduces stigma

This may sound obvious, and is something we repeat in the mental health industry, but it’s something I really see, first-hand, here in the office. The more we talk about our mental health, the more everyday and ‘normal’ the conversation becomes.

It stops becoming a secret, discussed behind closed doors, and becomes a part of daily conversation. The standard ‘How are you?’ stops being met with ‘Fine, thanks’ when it wasn’t fine. Instead we’re much more likely to speak up and say ‘Actually not so great….’ and start a real conversation.

Many of us know that talking about how we’re feeling is important, but I would say what’s more important is to use this talk to take action. Use these conversations to figure out what you need and what your employer needs to do to support you – and, finally, it’s important to keep talking. This is how we keep it part of the conversation. This is how we ask questions, get insight and take action.

This is how change starts.

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