Reality is harsh. There are some people in this world who simply cannot work, or who have limited employment opportunities, due to health issues. The most immediately obvious examples of this are people who suffer from physical illnesses or disabilities which limit the kind of work, or amount of work, they can do. Less talked about is the fact that those who suffer from mental illnesses often fall into the same category.
Chronic mental illnesses are historically less understood than chronic physical illnesses. Like, dramatically less understood. Thankfully, the days when those who suffered from mental illnesses were branded as “crazy” and locked away in asylums are in the past. However, today someone with a mental illness that, say, makes it incredibly difficult for them to get out of bed in the mornings is considered “lazy” and in need of a “change of attitude” so they can “get over themselves” and return to being a productive member of society.
If you’re reading this blog, hopefully you know by now that mental illness does not equate to laziness (and beware my wrath if you don’t). And you may or may not know that anxiety is one such mental illness that can make having a full-time job almost impossible. I can only contribute my own experiences here, but hopefully those will at least shed some light on how difficult it can be to be a good employee when you’re suffering from a mental illness.
Looking back, even before I got my diagnosis, anxiety caused me considerable grief when it came to looking for, and performing in, various jobs that I’ve had all the years. I’m an undergraduate student whose highest qualification is currently NCEA Level Three, which means my pool of jobs I’m qualified for is limited to begin with. Anxiety, coupled with a strong desire not to divide my attention between work and study (and, when I was in high school, adamant parents) has meant that I’ve never had a job during the school or university year. So I’ve only ever worked holiday jobs, which were mostly in retail and hospitality.
Here are some ways my anxiety has affected my working life.
- Jobhunting is one of the most unpleasant things you can undertake, as a normal person. The difficulty of having to ask myriad strangers whether they’ve got any work available, and then handle the rejection that almost always follows – for most people, that’s not exactly water off a duck’s back. When – like me – you suffer from a disorder that makes you ridiculously anxious over nothing (let alone things that actually warrant anxiety) it’s a whole other level of nope. I probably missed out on a lot of job opportunities due to worrying myself into stagnation.
- Anxiety places further limitations on my already-small employment opportunities. Because of anxiety I struggle in high-stress work environments, such as working retail during the Christmas period (something I’ve done twice). I also avoid jobs with long hours (10-hour days aren’t something I cope well with), irregular hours (e.g. 1pm-11pm shift one day, 9am-6pm shift the next), and last-minute call-ins (“hey Beth I know you weren’t rostered on for today but can you come in and by can you come in we mean you have no choice, get in your car now“).
- I’ve had to take sick days because of my anxiety. When your employer can’t see physical signs of illness, it’s a lot harder for them to understand why you’ve had to go home early. I’ll never forget one of my days at Kmart in 2013, when I had an anxiety attack an hour into my nine-hour shift and burst into tears at the till. Luckily my manager was very understanding and let me go home because it was quite clear that I was unable to function, but it’s not always that easy. Besides which, I felt so fucking useless having to ask to go home early – I thought for sure they would dismiss me because I clearly couldn’t handle the pressures of being a checkout operator.
- There have been times when I’ve felt unable to communicate to my employer why I need to take a day off, or why my performance has dropped during a shift.
- In the past year and a half or so, I’ve tried to be very upfront with any potential employer about my mental illness. Letting them know that it’s a thing I have is important for both parties. However, I have experienced times where I felt my employer or potential employer lacked trust in my ability to perform because of my mental illness. This is a tricky one. Because of course, those feelings are not unwarranted – there are going to be times when I won’t be able to do as well as I could because of my anxiety. But it also feels unfair to me, to be treated as a liability or an annoyance because of something that I can’t help, and am doing my best to manage.
Here are some of the ways working has affected my anxiety.
- I did shift work at New World and Kmart over the Christmas-New Year period, and this definitely had a negative impact on my anxiety. Especially when I was working at Kmart, I remember dreading most of my shifts, and spent the first one or two hours of each shift trying to calm myself down because I would often be convinced I was going to get really sick or pass out. Working for such huge chain retail companies definitely was not healthy for me, and after the end of my time at Kmart my anxiety was incredibly bad.
- The most difficult part of working with an anxiety disorder was dealing with an anxiety attack on the job. When you’re working, there’s not really a lot of opportunity for you to go someplace quiet to calm yourself down, so most of the time I would just have to work through it and try to hide it as best I could. Having anxiety attacks at work made me dread work even more, and anticipate having more anxiety attacks – it became a vicious cycle.
- I also wasn’t sure how to communicate my anxiety to my employer, especially in the time before I even really understood what was going on myself. It’s something I still struggle with today, even though I know it’s important.
- Lastly, without a doubt being in a stressful workplace environment made my symptoms way worse. And there wasn’t much I could do about this – when you’re in that situation you just have to keep working, regardless of how bad you feel. I know that stress can be a huge trigger for my anxiety, but stress is just part of life, so I had to learn to cope with workplace stresses as best I could.
How can we approach the issue of mental illness and employment?
- First of all, I’d like everyone to know that there’s absolutely no shame in putting your mental health before your job. Better you take time off when you recognise you need it, rather than to continue working and getting worse and worse until you reach a point where you’re unfit for work (and may risk losing your job in the process).
- Also, if you’re in a job that’s become a huge detriment to your health, I think there’s also no shame in just quitting and looking for something more suitable for you. I know this is not always an option, but in my case, I would do whatever I could to ensure I had a job that wasn’t putting me at risk of undoing all the hard work I’ve put into my recovery. If this meant going on the dole until a suitable job vacancy appeared, then so be it.
- Also, sometimes working can be good for anxiety. You just have to find a job that’s not going to cause it to become worse, and is going to be constructive for your recovery/managing your symptoms. Right now the job I work in is on a casual basis, meaning I have the freedom to take or leave shifts as they suit me. Having that control has been so good, because I know I won’t be trapped into working any shifts when I’m not feeling well.
- Being vocal about mental illness will help reduce stigma and increase understanding in the workplace. The more we talk about it, the more people (including employers) will begin to see mental illnesses as illnesses, and maybe that will create more job opportunities for those of us who suffer from a mental disorder.
As always, these are just my thoughts on the issue. I hope you’ll share yours with me, especially if they differ from my own.