Employers need to change their attitudes

August 23, 2017

I first experienced warning signs of my impending breakdown in autumn 2008. I'd been working long hours in a major bank, the financial crisis was kicking off and there were widespread rumours of large scale redundancies - or even the bank going bust. I’d just bought a house, my girlfriend's income was fairly unpredictable, and we were quite stretched financially.

I was going to the toilets at work to cry once or twice a day - sobbing, trying desperately not to make any noise. I was terrified that colleagues - and bosses - might find out about what I perceived as 'weakness'.

One day in October, I physically couldn't get to work - I just started to cry as I put my suit on, and couldn't stop. I took a couple of days off, then tried again. I made it halfway on the tube, before having what I know now was a panic attack. I called my girlfriend, who came to take me home.

I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and it got much worse before it got better. It was a fairly unpleasant nine months, with daily suicidal thoughts and a reasonably generous allocation of crying and panic attacks. Leaving the house became a real issue. Simple decisions - which socks to wear, or what to buy for lunch - were enough to reduce me to a sobbing, snotty mess.

The culture at work, looking back, was quite odd. It was fairly assertive and masculine - illness roughly equated to weakness, and mental health wasn't ever mentioned. We were well paid, and our job was to suck up pressure, work long hours and produce good work at all times – and this certainly didn't help when I began to struggle. A big part of the problem for me was self-stigma - I was disgusted at my own 'weakness'. How dare I be unwell, when I enjoyed good physical health, a wonderful girlfriend etc?

I was off work for a prolonged time, and my immediate boss was very supportive - one work friend was also hugely helpful. Yet otherwise, there was fairly minimal contact. I was surprised there wasn't a 'get well' card sent. It could have made a real difference, knowing that people cared. I'm certainly not blaming anyone I worked with - it was indicative of wider attitudes, and stigma, towards mental health. I think the situation now would be different - attitudes have shifted so much in the last 5-10 years, thanks largely to work by campaigns like Time to Change.

As I recovered, I started to work part-time. I moved into the charity sector and gradually returned to work full time - essentially doing a very similar job now to what I was doing in banking.

I genuinely think now that my mental illness was an asset. I'm much more conscious about the need to achieve a better work-life balance; I now live in a more moderate, healthy way, with a shorter working week and less late nights. Also working in a more sympathetic sector, I've always been honest about my breakdown and I think being able to talk openly about stuff helps hugely. There have been a couple of times I've said to various bosses that I'm struggling a little, and their response has always been really positive and supportive - what can they do to help? I think my focus on staying healthy and my awareness of mental wellbeing makes me a better and more productive employee. Ultimately, being open and willing to talk about mental health has to be good news for employers, and good news for staff.