Typically I like to keep things simple, light hearted, and fun in my posts. I believe that approach is a great way for people to learn and retain information and my goal with this blog is to provide educational content that you find engaging. With that said, this post will probably not follow my usual tone of simplicity and fun but I encourage you to continue reading.
With May being Mental Health Month, I thought it would be a good time to share my personal journey with mental health in the workplace…and maybe you have had a similar struggle and can relate.
I have been in the workforce for about 9+ years. I spent five of those years working with an undiagnosed disorder that affected my work productivity, work relationships, and it had a lasting impact on my self confidence in the workplace.
Thinking back before my diagnosis, I remember experiencing symptoms in my late teens but the symptoms didn’t become debilitating until my sophomore year in undergraduate studies.
The worst of my symptoms include:
- suicide ideation
- frequent panic attacks
- destructive mood swings
- random crying
- extreme tiredness
- increased sensitivity to rejection
- self deprecating thoughts
Plug those symptoms into WebMD and see what you find…
I can remember skipping classes because I was so tired that I couldn’t drive; I’d be a risk to others. I called out of work for migraines that would last for days. I had conflict with coworkers due to false perceptions derived from my irritable mood swings and paranoia. I would have random bouts of crying that would send me to the nearest bathroom for privacy. During the depressive phases, I would be a blob at work…knowing I had to get work done but wondering what was the point?
I sound like a terrible student and employee huh? Yet, when I wasn’t experiencing symptoms I was the best student and the best employee. I showed up, I excelled, I was brilliant, I was a team player…my coworkers, bosses, classmates, and teachers suffered from whiplash trying to keep up with my shifting moods.
My Sport Psychology professor was the first person to hint that something was off. She had noticed that I was active and collaborative with my classmates and then other times I seemed defensive and combative. The professor approached me after class one day to discuss what she had observed. She asked if I was OK and explained how she noticed that most times I was engaging and participated with my classmates but other times, I was completely aloof and disengaged which didn’t appear to be typical of my character.
I just told her that it was the typical stress of being a broke college student because that’s what I genuinely believed. I thought everyone else was having a similar struggle but they were just better at hiding it. We live in a world where mental health struggles are perceived as a weakness to be hidden and that’s what I was trying to do.
I thought stress was just making me tired, irritable, and depressed. I was living on my own for the first time with no money, bills to pay, and with an education system where you have to go to school full time to graduate “on time”, it’s near impossible to work enough hours to make ends meet. My school schedule only allowed me to work late nights and every weekend…there was no time for rest and self-care. I sucked it up and put myself on the back burner.
During this time, it was difficult to be at the same job for more than 6 months. My symptoms only got worse. I was late to work because I had to fight depression to get out of bed. I had increased conflicts with coworkers because my mood swings had me interpreting their actions and words inaccurately. I called out to avoid conflict…Plainly put, the struggle was real.
But again, let me remind you…there were times when my symptoms weren’t active and I was an awesome employee. I was producing excellent work, I got along great with my coworkers, had constructive meetings with my boss…Unfortunately, I could feel when my boss was losing patience and I’d look for another job and quit before I was fired.
In 2015, a close friend approached me and was very honest. After seeing what she perceived as an “alternate personality”, she suggested I see a therapist on campus since it was covered with my tuition. I rolled my eyes at the thought. I kept telling myself,
“2 more years…you’ll graduate and this will all disappear. You don’t need help, this is temporary…fight or flight…you’re choosing to fight.”
But was I truly fighting? According to my Sport Psychology class…I was technically in “flight mode”… I was doing everything I could to avoid admitting there was a problem.
So when you looked up my symptoms earlier on WebMD, what did you find? When I plugged in those symptoms, my top results where Bipolar Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder… My first thought was, “wtf? is this right? Maybe I do need to talk to someone…”
Spoiler Alert: it wasn’t either of those.
Now initially, that’s what the therapist thought too. It wasn’t until he noticed my symptoms seemed cyclical that he did some more research. To sum it up, my symptoms seemed to run a pattern of two and half weeks on and one and half weeks off with some variances.
At one of our appointments, he gave me a symptom tracking sheet that I had to do for 3 months. It included tracking my perceived mood and symptoms throughout the day. After I completed the three months of tracking, my therapist suggested that I may have Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder or PMDD.
According to iapmd.org:
“Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (also known as Premenstrual Dysphoria, Late Luteal Phase Dysphoric Disorder, or PMDD) is a cyclical, hormone-based mood disorder with symptoms arising during the premenstrual, or the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle and lasting until the onset of menstrual flow. The luteal phase is the time between ovulation and menstruation. It affects an estimated 5-10% of women of reproductive age. While PMDD is directly connected to the menstrual cycle, it is not a hormone imbalance. PMDD is a severe negative reaction to the natural rise and fall of estrogen and progesterone. “
Some of you may have read that and thought “So what? you have a rough period”. Because frankly, whenever I mention my PMDD, that’s typically the main response. But let me be clear:
PMDD is not PMS.
PMS is not classified as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), while PMDD is.
Can you imagine why it was easier to leave a job opposed to trying to collaborate with my boss on how to best accommodate my disorder in the workplace…especially if the boss was male? Imagine that conversation…
Now, in California, I can claim PMDD as a disability to be accommodated in the workplace BUT there is still a wide unawareness and misunderstanding regarding this disorder and how to best accommodate it in the workplace.
For me, accommodations like a flexible work schedule would make the biggest positive impact on my ability to be productive when it counts. PMDD doesn’t pause between the hours of 9am-5pm. The symptoms can be subtle or overwhelmingly sudden and volatile. A flexible schedule would allow me to work from home on the days I’m extremely irritable and should avoid being around others, it would go miles in allowing me to sleep when I go through a fight with insomnia, or go home early with a migraine where I can work at home with less light and noise.
For my current job, a flexible schedule is absolutely feasible but unfortunately, government service hasn’t caught on to that trend. Even if I requested reasonable accommodation, I might be provided 1 work day at home a week but you see, PMDD symptoms can last for weeks and for some, their symptoms are even more debilitating than mine.
So how do I manage my mental illness at work? To be honest, I still hide it from a lot of people…In fact, there are probably family and friends who are reading this and finding out for the first time that I have a mental illness. Trusting someone with that knowledge is exposing a very vulnerable and private piece of yourself but here we are… it’s out for everyone to see now.
I am able to manage many of my symptoms through diet and exercise…which is not always the case with PMDD. Some menstruators need a combination of prescription drugs and even a full hysterectomy to find relief from PMDD symptoms.
Because of my PMDD, I am passionate about providing wellness education and materials for the workplace. I’m part of the change. At my job, and this blog, I provide research and resources to employees so they are empowered to put themselves first. When a business is wellness oriented, it makes it easier for people with mental health struggles to feel supported and maybe one day soon, I’ll feel more confident in sharing my mental illness with my workplace. Until then, my advocacy goal is to educate employers on mental health in the workplace.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 in 4 people struggle with mental or neurological disorders.
Still, less than one third of people with mental illness get the treatment they need, and this comes at a cost — to people and to companies. Failure to acknowledge an employee’s mental health can hurt productivity, professional relationships, and the bottom line: $17-$44 billion is lost to depression each year, whereas $4 is returned to the economy for every $1 spent caring for people with mental health issues.
The Harvard Business Review: Morra Aarons-Mele
With the lack of support, awareness, and education regarding mental health in the workplace, it’s important to understand that a large part of the workforce may be struggling with mental health issues. This means there must be a paradigm shift in how mental health is perceived and accommodated in the workplace. As the “wellness oriented” Millennial generation becomes the majority of the workforce population, I’m positive inclusivity and support for mental health in the workplace is fast coming.
What can you do in the meantime?
Ask your Human Resources department to provide inclusive training regarding mental health in the workplace. Suggest seminars and public speakers to educate employees on the benefits of supporting, managing, and accommodating mental health in the workplace.
Does your job offer an Employee Assistance Program to provide free counseling services? If they do, ask your employer to educate employees about the program and what services are provided. Many EAP’s provide mental health, legal, and financial counseling. Almost every job I’ve worked at provided EAP and only about 5% of employees knew it was a resource they had.
If your insurance carriers at work provide mental health coverage, ask them to do a presentation discussing the mental health coverage options.
As an individual, be supportive and receptive to those with mental health struggles in your workplace. Advocate for change and lead the way to de-stigmatize mental health.
Did you find this post useful? Share with your coworkers!
Have you struggled with mental health in workplace? What accommodations does your employer provide?