For many people, a bad day is just that, and you wake up in better spirits the next morning. For others—myself included—how you’re feeling mentally isn’t just a bad mood that you can shake, and dealing with mental health issues or mental illness while trying to juggle your job is a legitimate struggle.
There are more people than you might think who are battling metal illness and trying to balance their job on top of it. If you’re one of them, you’re not alone, and we’re going to talk about options for coping while keeping up with your career. While I’m typically a pretty private person, I believe in speaking up about mental health to help stop the stigma, which is why I’m also going to share my experiences about managing mental illness while working.
How Mental Illness Can Impact Your Job
Some people with mental illness can get out of bed, look presentable, and make their way through the day, even when they’re experiencing agony inside. For others, getting out of bed isn’t even feasible. Either way, trying to get through your work tasks, collaborate with team members, and think critically can be a nightmare.
While there are many types of mental illness, we’re going to focus on three common types that can have a big impact on how you do your job.
1 – Anxiety at Work
While it’s safe to say that we all experience anxiety from time to time, others of us can struggle on a greater level. That means feeling like you can’t catch your breath, your heart is racing, and you can’t stop worrying—and it’s not just because you have a presentation coming up or are meeting your boss to ask for a raise. Symptoms of anxiety can come out of nowhere and completely take over, making it difficult to stop the racing thoughts and the feeling like something terrible is going to happen.
Experiencing an anxiety disorder at work can make it feel impossible to get things done because you’re so consumed with worrying or trying to keep a panic attack at bay. You might lie awake at night with those racing thoughts and have your fatigue impact your 9-to-5. Many people have “Sunday night anxiety” about starting the work week, but people with anxiety disorders can feel that type of dread and stress every day. Trying to “calm down,” “chill out,” or “relax,” isn’t always an option when you have an anxiety disorder.
In the workplace, this can mean that you’re consumed by worries about your job or your schedule, and that can have a big impact on your productivity. Many people are more irritable or don’t seem like they’re paying attention to conversations or group projects.
For me, anxiety can creep in any time, but especially when I say yes to too many projects—even thinking about saying yes or no is highly stressful for me and I feel unable to make a decision. Part of me wants to say yes to every client and every assignment, but I know myself well enough to know that doing too much is bad for my mental health.
I’ve learned the hard way (multiple times) that I need to know my limits. I always stick to my deadlines and my word to my clients, but I’ve gotten myself into situations where I have too much to do and have had to work late nights, (or even pull all-nighters) and that’s something that I know is a major anxiety trigger for me. I’m still working on it, but trying to keep and accept a realistic balance for me—even if that’s a bit less work than other people do—is the best thing I can do for managing work-related anxiety.
2 – Depression at Work
Everyone gets down in the dumps sometimes, but depression is a deeper low that you can’t just snap out of. Symptoms of depression can last for weeks or months at a time, and just getting up in the morning is a challenge, never mind showing up and concentrating on your job.
Depression can make you lose all interest in the things you love to, so co-workers might notice your disinterest in projects or find that you’re working at a slower pace. Depression can also trigger irritability, so you may find yourself snapping at someone or being easily annoyed at the people around you. You might beat yourself up for feeling the way you do, but are helpless to change it.
Some people who experience severe depression might not even be able to make it to work, leading to multiple days of calling in sick, which can only make guilt and feeling worthless even worse.
Before becoming a professional writer, I worked in a corporate job and had to show up to an office every day. During depressive episodes, I found it impossible to focus or get anything done because I felt so lethargic and blasé about life. There were times where I felt so lost that my emotions would take over and I’d find myself tearing up and spending time alone in the bathroom willing myself not to cry.
At that time, I hadn’t told my boss, and I had to lie about being sick, having a migraine so I could close my office door, or suffering from allergies to explain red, watery eyes from crying. Some people just try to take things day by day, but that was too overwhelming, so I’d try to go hour by hour, or even focus on minute by minute, just to have a way to keep going and keep performing.
3 – ADHD at Work
People often think that ADHD is just something that hyperactive kids experience, but it affects adults too. Some people develop ADHD (or are just diagnosed) as an adult, and 60% of kids who have ADHD carry it into adulthood.
Symptoms of ADHD that impact your work performance may include not being able to focus, restlessness, fidgeting, being easily distracted, finding it hard to stay organized or on task, and having poor listening skills.
While your co-workers or supervisor might notice these problems, your struggles might also fly under the radar, because many people with ADHD are seen as just being highly energetic and enthusiastic. While you might appear to be fun and upbeat, having ADHD can make getting your work done very difficult at times, and your performance may suffer if you can’t stay focused on your work. This might mean missed deadlines, procrastinating and stress due to leaving things to the last minute, or sloppy work that you hurried to get done in time.
I often look at my work to-do list and see the many things I have to do in a day, yet I can’t seem to get started on anything. I’ll write a sentence or open a project, then somehow find myself scrolling Instagram or wasting away the workday. I pride myself on never missing a deadline, so this often leads to a lot of stress and anxiety when I have to work under pressure at the last minute.
I have to build a lot of structure into my day and break tasks up into bite-sized pieces, otherwise each project seems impossible to even get started on. If my to-do list says, “write Style Nine to Five article,” it can be an overwhelming task because concentrating start to finish without jumping back and forth to other assignments or clients is unlikely for me. Instead, I’ll start even with the simplest tasks, like making an outline, or even just writing an intro, then coming back to it later for the next step.
Disclosing Your Mental Illness at Work
Deciding to tell anyone about your mental illness is a scary prospect for many people, and disclosing that information to your boss or colleagues can be even more daunting. It’s a big decision, but there are plenty of good reasons to open up about it.
You might be worried about being viewed as weak or less capable, or worried that you’ll be passed up for raises or promotions, but remember that the Canadian Human Rights Act makes it against the law in Canada for your employer to discriminate you based on mental illness and they are obligated to find reasonable accommodations for people with a mental illness or disability.
Telling your boss that you have mental health issues opens up a conversation on how to best support you. This might mean reducing your workload, being flexible in your work hours, extending deadlines, or giving you advanced notice of projects to give you more time, accepting sick days that are mental health related, or shuffling team tasks around so you can work on things that are more comfortable to you. If you decide to talk to your boss about your mental illness, consider coming prepared with some practical ideas on how they can support you.
The same applies to your co-workers if you decided to open up about your mental struggles. Giving them ideas for how they can support you can take the guesswork out of how they act moving forward.
While I was working my office job, my depression reached a point where I could barely function at work, and my boss noticed. She asked me if everything was ok, and I let her know what I was dealing with. My heart was pounding and I was filled with self-doubt, but she ended up being understanding and wanting to know what I needed. I asked for a day off and felt better about taking it, rather than feeling guilty for lying and saying that I had the flu. It also showed her that I wasn’t slipping because I was a poor employee or had lost interest in my job, but that there was a reason for my unusual performance.
Now, as a freelancer, I don’t advertise my mental health issues to every client I work with, but it’s out there on the internet if they want to know, and I’m not shy about asking for a deadline to be pushed back or for requesting other changes that might lower my anxiety.
Coping Strategies for Managing Mental Illness at Work
Whether you’re working on-site or remotely, there are plenty of actionable ways to support yourself in doing your job while also keeping your mental health in mind.
• Take breaks
I know that marathon work sessions aren’t good for my mental health. As I said, I often need to slow down and take things step by step, and this includes taking breaks when I need them. Even a few minutes to get up and have a glass of water or going to sit in another room for a change of scenery for a while can help take my anxiety down a notch or can help me shift my focus if I’m struggling with concentrating on my work.
That said, if I’m feeling overwhelmed with anxiety, it can be hard to take a break because I’m panicked about wasting time, even if it’s just the idea of taking 20 minutes to go for a walk. In these times, I often put break times in my calendar so I can see that there is actually that 20 minutes to spare and that the world won’t end if I slot that time in between client calls or projects.
• Seek professional help
Therapy isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly worth a try. Depending on the type of mental illness you have and your own choices, seeing a psychiatrist who can prescribe medication to you might be the right option, or just talking your feelings out to a counsellor can be beneficial, especially if you have a hard time discussing your mental illness with other people.
If the cost of seeing a psychologist or therapist is a concern for you, many employers offer Employee Assistance Programs that provide free or subsidized counselling, and your involvement is private from your employer. Look into your options, which will be laid out in your benefits plan.
• Take a day if you need it
While staying in bed day after day isn’t helpful for mental illness, there’s also nothing wrong with giving yourself a break if you really need it. There’s no shame in taking a personal day or finding a colleague to take your shift if it will help you cope with a particularly tough time.
At my former job, there were days when I was so down that I couldn’t handle the idea a full work week. Once in a while, I’d take a personal day and give myself permission to accept that’s what I needed. You’d take a sick day if you had a physical illness, and it’s ok to admit to yourself when your mental health needs a day off too.
• Set boundaries
It’s hard to shake things like anxiety if your phone is alerting you that you have a new email at 9 pm or if you’re waking up to notifications about how many new messages are waiting for you. I like to set work hours (which can still be flexible) and make a conscious choice to close my computer when I’m done work for the day and turn off notifications to keep me from waking up in a panic or interrupting my much-needed downtime in the evening.
I take time in the morning to sit and drink my coffee, rather than scrambling to jump on my emails, and these boundaries help me feel in control of when I choose to start my day, versus letting my job control me. It reduces my anxiety or gives me a bit of time for a slower start if I’m struggling with feeling depressed.
• Reduce your workload
This isn’t always an option depending on your job or circumstances, but finding ways to lighten your workload—even by a little bit—is helpful if you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious about having too much on your plate. This might mean asking for an extension on a deadline so you can spread out your workload a bit, or approaching a co-worker about splitting a project with you.
If you need a more permanent change, talk to your boss about working one less day a week or even being able to leave early a couple of times a week. In my experience, it doesn’t hurt to ask and I’ve found that there are often projects or clients that are more flexible than I might have initially thought.
To help keep my workload as a freelancer in check, I’ve started keeping a spreadsheet of each week and recording all the tasks I have and the time they’ll take. Then, when I reach the maximum number of hours that I know is healthy for me, I know when to start saying no or letting clients know that I’m not available until the following week.
• Break tasks up
Feeling depressed or having a hard time focusing can make some jobs seem insurmountable. When I feel like a project is too big, it makes it even harder for me to focus and start on it—I just want to avoid it even more, which isn’t helpful for my mental health.
Sometimes I need to start small, and I mean really small, like just opening a new document and giving it a title. Other times, I even need to write each step down so I can physically cross it off and feel like I’m making progress instead of beating myself up for feeling like I can’t accomplish anything or get started.
• Be realistic
It’s easy to blow things out of proportion if you’re battling depression, anxiety, or any other type of mental illness while trying to do your job. It might seem like you have a million things on your schedule, but if you actually count them out, you might see that it’s really only five. Or number your tasks in order of what absolutely needs to get done and be realistic about what can wait until later (or doesn’t need to be done at all).
I like to write things down so I don’t forget them, but that can sometimes make my list look endless. When I feel like I simply can’t deal with it, I look at what projects are due that day and other things that I can cross off and add to a separate, “one day” list so I don’t clog my calendar up with too many things, which is a big anxiety trigger for me.
I’m not a health expert, but I do have my own battles, as well as my ways to cope with my job. I’m sharing how I balance those struggles to help give other people some solutions or ideas that can work for them too.
If you’re dealing with a mental illness and having a hard time managing it at work, you’re not alone and that there are ways to keep going and be a valued employee. Do what works for you and your situation. That might take some trial and error, but succeeding at work with a mental illness is possible for me, and it can be for you too.
Resources for employers
If you’re an employer reading this, or an employee who wants to provide some tools to your boss or colleagues on supporting a mental illness in the workplace, these are some additional resources to take a look at:
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By: Jeanine Gordon – Jeanine is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for creating stellar content for global brands and small businesses alike – specializing in fashion and lifestyle.
Feature Image: Adobe Stock