The HR Juggler

The 25% Club: With Hindsight

Posted on: February 14, 2013

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This post is part of the 25% club series dealing with the topic of mental health, particularly as it relates to the workplace. Some of the posts, like today’s, will be accredited, others will be anonymous – all have a powerful impact and help to shine a light on a topic that we need to talk about so much more than we currently do. Today’s post is by Lesley Campbell who can be found on Twitter @lellielesley.

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With hindsight, I think I’ve always been one of the 25%, having experienced episodes of depression for as long as I can remember, but it was only in 2008 when this became something I could no longer deny. 2008 was the year I eventually broke down completely and ultimately the start of recovery. This is a long and ever-evolving story, but I have tried to keep it brief – or rather as short as possible – 2500+ words is rarely considered brief. I hope you will take the time to read it and please feel free to comment.

So – summer 2007, I’d just graduated with a good degree and joined my current employer as a new management consultant. Two weeks before, I’d got engaged to my long-term partner and life felt good. I loved my new job and my first project was going really well. Everything was going smoothly and perhaps foolishly, I thought that my past unhappiness was probably just part of growing up and that hopefully my past experiences with depression were behind me.

Unfortunately in May 2008, nearly 10 months after starting work, I realised this was a mistake. I suddenly found I was no longer coping with life. There was no real trigger; it just crept up on me over a couple of weeks. I felt overwhelmed by the smallest things and dreaded every day and every night, unable to sleep but unable to drag myself out of bed each morning to face the day. I was suicidal and could see no other option. I drove to work, fantasising about crashing my car into a motorway bridge or brick wall. I wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. I was unable to concentrate at work and found myself working harder and harder to achieve less and less. I was desperate to hide how I was feeling and did everything I could to make sure no one noticed. I kept going to work because I didn’t know what else I could do and I was too afraid to ask for help. I hoped it would pass like it had always done in the past, but things were getting worse.

Everything came to a head in early June. I was in a one-to-one with my line manager, discussing a piece of work I’d been struggling to get finished. My boss made a well-intentioned, but flippant comment “It’s not important, don’t kill yourself over this” and I know he was trying to minimise my stress, but it made me panic. I feared he could read my mind and would try to stop my plans for suicide. I hid my panic and the meeting carried on as normal, but as the day went on his words were echoing in my mind and I realised I needed to say something. I couldn’t find the words, so I emailed him and explained the way I was feeling.

He read my email and despite my requests in the email to discuss any action with me first, he immediately contacted HR. I felt betrayed by this, but understand why he did it. Thankfully, the HR manager was very supportive. The next day, she called me to discuss what could be done to help me. They asked if I wanted to take time off work and if I would see my GP, but I was too scared to take that step. We compromised and agreed that I would see Occupational Health instead. As my line manager was not concerned about my performance at work and I wanted to maintain a routine, we also agreed I could stay in work until I had been to occupational health. I was relieved to have finally said something and frightened about what would happen next.

Occupational Health was a big step for me. It was the first time I’d discussed my depression with a medical professional. I was scared of doctors. I feared he wouldn’t believe me or take me seriously. I shouldn’t have worried – he agreed that I was going through an episode of depression and again told me I needed to see my GP as he felt I would benefit from medication and therapy. I knew there was no point fighting it any longer and made an appointment.

Seeing my GP was really difficult and I didn’t find her particularly helpful or supportive. She wanted to start me on medication straight away, but I was unsure about this. She made a referral to the primary care mental health team and insisted on signing me off work and I reluctantly agreed to a two-week break. Little did I know that this would be the start of a two and a half year sickness absence.

The next year or so was very challenging – the worst of my life. My condition deteriorated rapidly after I stopped working – my work and routine had been holding me together until that point, but once you stop it can be hard to keep going. I agreed to try medication, which only made me worse as the drugs exacerbated my mood and made me dysphoric – agitated and paranoid, as well as desperately suicidal. I changed GPs and medication and still didn’t improve. I ended up spending time in and out of hospital, trying different medications and therapies and struggling to find anything that helped. I attempted to kill myself more than once and on one occasion I nearly succeeded. I even had ECT during the spring of 2009 in a desperate attempt to bring me out of depression. I was deeply unwell and at the time I really didn’t think I’d ever recover or return to work. I honestly thought I’d be dead by now and I suspect I wasn’t the only one that feared that. At one point, I was told the horrific fact that after two years out of the workplace due to illness, you are more likely to die within five years than you are likely to go back to work. Not exactly encouraging statistics.

Eventually, in January 2010, during a five-week stay in hospital, under the care of a new psychiatrist, I was started on a different combination of medication and this time the drugs started to work for me. It sounds like a cliché but it really did feel as if the clouds had parted and a weight had been taken off my shoulders. Slowly, I started to piece my life back together.

After a few more months, I started to think about work again and got back in touch with HR. I was referred back to occupational health and we agreed a very slow phased return to work. We started with just two hours a week at first, increasing over about six months to 12hrs a week divided over three days and then over the next year we eventually increased to full-time hours. It took a lot of time and patience, but the slow and steady increases were important. I thought they were joking at first when I was told I could only do 2 or 4 hours a week, but I was amazed at how tired those hours made me.

Soon after I returned, I was found an internal project working with our graduate HR and Training team. It has been a role which I’ve really enjoyed and found immensely rewarding. The work has been challenging, which has been important for rebuilding my confidence – I didn’t want to return to work and find myself counting paperclips – I needed a role that would help to strengthen and test my recovery, but I also needed a role which was flexible enough to accommodate me and my needs. Working internally has fulfilled that brief and I am so grateful to my employer for allowing me to return to work in this way. They have been very supportive, providing reasonable adjustments to allow me to manage my condition. Things such as a later start time and regular home-working allowed me to better manage the side effects of my medication. A company smartphone assists me with memory and concentration issues, which are both a residual symptom of mental illness and an unfortunate outcome of the ECT. Autonomy over my schedule and workload allowed me to flex things depending on my mood – if I work harder on a good day, I can compensate for the bad ones. These are just little tweaks to my work environment and adjustments which cost very little, but they can make a big difference. Overall I think I have been given the best possible chance to succeed in my return to work.

Since returning to work, I’ve vowed to be open and honest about my condition. When I returned, someone in HR told me not to tell anyone I had been off on sick leave. I was unsure how I could walk back into the office after more than two years and just pretend nothing had happened. I know they wanted to protect me, but I didn’t feel I could do this – I am not a good liar. I suspect that if my absence was caused by pretty much any other health condition, I’d have been welcomed back with flowers and asked how I’m feeling. People wouldn’t have been afraid to talk about it and I certainly wouldn’t be expected to hide. Just because it is mental health does not mean it should be any different. Managing any long-term health condition is hard enough, without trying to hide it as well. I didn’t want to go through that again. Instead I chose to speak out.

One of the first things I did when I returned to work was joining our disability network. I have been actively involved in raising awareness and increasing membership of the network and have been a champion for mental health within the group. Last year, I approached our leadership and encouraged them to show their support for Time to Change. They agreed and in October 2012, we held an event ahead of World Mental Health Day. As well as organising the event, I spoke about my personal experience of returning to work after mental illness – a terrifying, but rewarding and liberating experience. A few years ago I didn’t have the courage to admit I was struggling with depression and now I was talking about it in front of our UK Managing Director and other Leadership. The event culminated in the MD and our disability network sponsor signing an organisational pledge to support Time to Change, alongside Time to Change director Sue Baker. It was a proud moment and a big step forward for my employer too. A few years previously there was a hesitation from HR and management to mention mental illness as it was seen as too serious or not relevant in the work place – instead there was a focus on softer terms such as “wellbeing” or stress as these were considered more acceptable. Now we were openly talking about depression, suicide and mental illness. At last there was recognition of the importance of this issue to the business. People were listening and more importantly, people were talking. There was a real buzz after the event and there are definitely signs of an improved awareness and desire to change. We are trying to maximise on this momentum, but there is still a long way to go.

However, I recognise that it’s one thing speaking out in a closed environment, in a workplace where I know there is a strong ethos of diversity, where I am already supported and where I have already proved my worth. I have to confess I was less certain about posting this blog under my real name in an open forum like this. Google is all-powerful and if a client ever finds this or perhaps a potential future employer, I wonder how they will react. I don’t know. However, I do know that if it reflects badly, then perhaps working for them wouldn’t work out well anyway. I hope my CV, my skills and my experience will speak for themselves and that they will give me an opportunity to address any concerns they may have. I hope that it is something we can talk about and that they recognise that actually, knowing about my condition means it is something that can be managed. I also hope that they realise the “me” they knew before, is still me. I don’t want to be defined by my illness or it to be the only thing I am known for, but at the same time, I don’t want to deny that it exists. It has shaped my experience and made me who I am. I want to share my experience and hope that people will learn from it and that in due course, time will change and I won’t need to worry.

So how about now and the future? I continue to live with a mental illness – a mood disorder. I recognise that I am likely to be living with this condition for the rest of my life and I will probably be taking medication for most, if not all, of that time. The medication ensures that the lows are not as low and the highs not as high and there is a stability in my life that had been missing before. I am never completely free of the effects of this illness – both residual symptoms and the side effects of treatment (current and past) leave their impact, but at the moment I am well and hope to stay that way. I am not under any illusions that I will never experience further episodes (and I live in fear of that moment), but I hope that I am better prepared and able to manage those if they happen. I have good insight and am able to monitor my moods and watch out for warning signs. I know how to get help if I need it and I am careful to manage my condition. I avoid alcohol, try to stick to a regular routine and try to manage stress. I tolerate the physical side effects of medication as horrible as they are and I keep taking the pills, because it is a small price to pay for being mentally well. All of this isn’t easy, but I do it because I want to stay well and I want to stay in work. I love my job, I love my career and I want to be successful. I refuse to let this illness stop that.

Recently I have embarked on the next step in my recovery – a return to client-facing consulting work. This is a massive step. I have to be honest and say I was unsure if I would ever make it to this point, but I now feel ready to take on this new challenge. And with it certainly comes new challenges – longer hours, lots of travel and more stress – all things which could potentially trigger that next episode which I fear so much. I need to balance my health needs with the needs of the project and those of my new team. I need to handle the expectations of the client and ensure that my illness doesn’t mean we don’t deliver. I am confident we can do this, but the team needs to work together to make it work. Key to this is openness and honesty – it is about talking. Unless I am honest with my employer and colleagues, it is hard for them to help me and hard for me to get the things I need – flexibility, understanding, support. I don’t need much from them – I want to take responsibility for my own condition and own recovery, but anything we can do to minimise the impact of my illness will certainly help towards making this a success. So far we’ve not done enough talking, but we are getting there. They know all they need to for now and with time, I am sure I will share more.

At the moment it is early days in the new role. I think it is going well. The work is interesting and I am learning a lot. I am finding it tough at times, but rewarding and enjoyable. I think I am finding the balance. I am still struggling with my medication and the impact that has on my sleep – early starts and lots of travel compound these issues, but I hope with time things will improve. If not, then I am sure we will find a compromise which will enable me to manage this issue better. I am still learning how to live with this illness and what impact it has on my work, but I am confident that whatever happens, we will work it out.

So, for now I am hopeful. Hopeful that things are moving in the right direction with regards to mental health stigma in the workplace and hopeful that I can remain in my rightful place in the workplace. I hope too that posting this will be the right decision and that it won’t come back to bite. Only time will tell.

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If you care about mental health and want to make a difference there are lots of things you can do

  • visit Mind’s website and check out their excellent corporate resources
  • take the ‘time to change’ pledge
  • share your story and read those of others as part of this blog series. If you would like to contribute, please get in touch with me on Twitter (@AlisonChisnell) or through the comments section of this blog
  • we are forming an #HRforMentalHealth team to fundraise for Mind by running the Royal Parks half marathon in October. Register here if you’d like to join us – we’re a friendly bunch with some first-time half-marathon runners joining us :)

4 Responses to "The 25% Club: With Hindsight"

Just about the most honest, clear and inspiring writing I’ve seen in a while. This is the stuff that moves people to talk about it, destigmatise it and help more. Well put and thanks for sharing it with such clear sincerity.

I agree with Perry. What an amazing read; it enlightened me. It helped me feel more in touch with your situation, rather than being a fortunate outsider. Eloquent and brave.

Can I say, I think you are already successful. This is a beautifully written exposition of your experience and how you have faced it. Thank you for your generosity in sharing this. Meg

Thank you for all of your kind comments. 🙂

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