Depression affects millions of people around the world. It destroys lives, it ruins marriages and it also impacts on how we work. Yet mental health problems, including depression, are still often a taboo subject in the workplace, which is odd when you consider that one in four adults will experience a mental health condition in any given year.
It can be difficult for a person suffering from depression to report the issue to their employer for a number of reasons. Depression can wrongly be seen as a selfish condition, or mistaken for a short period of sadness. Sometimes managers and even HR departments don’t understand, or aren’t trained to deal with mental health issues. For those who have never experienced the illness, it’s difficult to contemplate exactly what the sufferer is going through or why they can’t just snap out of it and pull themselves together.
Unfortunately depression doesn’t work like that. My experience with depression is better than most. I’ve been lucky enough that it hasn’t had too dramatic an impact on my working life and I’ve been able to build a career. It hasn’t been easy, and I’ve been fortunate enough to not only work for some very forward-thinking employers, but also to be in a position where I can influence policy regarding workplace mental health.
All employers have a responsibility for their employees’ health and safety in the workplace, including pre-existing mental health conditions and conditions brought on by work. How can employers ensure they meet this responsibility? I would suggest that the best way is to remove the taboo around depression and other mental health conditions and encourage their employees to come forward and seek help. Living with depression can be very lonely, and it will only be made worse if you feel that you have to hide your illness from your bosses. A lot of people suffer in silence until the problem gets too much, compounding their feelings of helplessness and isolation.
I’ve had my own issues with depression for a long time, but I have some great friends and family who have offered me help and advice, as well as knowledgeable and compassionate managers. Even so, I’ve still experienced days where I’m overcome and I can’t get out of bed. I’ve felt lower than I thought possible, I’ve thought about killing myself and I’ve done or said things that I never would have if I’d been having a good day.
On days where my condition gets the better of me, minor issues at work become major issues. My mind is a dark pool where the little annoyances that we all experience will swim around like sharks, devouring any suggestion of levity until they grow too big and overwhelm me. Then I shut down. My brain stops. Whatever task I’d been consumed with becomes unimportant as I sink deeper and deeper. My head is no longer on the job, which, depending on where you work can have serious health and safety impacts not just for you but also for your colleagues.
I have had to work hard to recognise when this might happen, and to take action to ensure I never put myself or others in a position of serious harm. My manger was aware of my condition and afforded me the flexibility to work in a way where I could best manage it. The company helped me fight my illness by offering me advice, resources and support. And importantly, by not making me feel selfish or ashamed for suffering from a condition beyond my control. They recognised that I’d have days where I couldn’t be productive, and helped me manage my workload to compensate.
Due to the confidential nature of workplace illness, and the reluctance for sufferers to come forward, it’s really important that employers build a culture of acceptance and support. Managers can find it difficult to discuss issues like depression, so it’s important for companies to help them with robust policies, procedures and training. With the cost of replacing staff lost due to mental health conditions reported to be £2.4bn per year in the UK alone, it makes sense for employers to help their employees combat the illness, even if just in a fiscal sense.
My experience with depression at work is one of the better ones, but it’s easy to find numerous examples of people suffering from mental illness who have been discriminated against, let go or passed over for promotion. Sometimes the employer is aware of the condition when they do this, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes, instead of making their employer aware of their condition an employee will have several unauthorised absences until the employer is forced to terminate their employment. This can tip a person on the precipice of self-harm over the edge.
If you’re suffering from depression and you don’t feel you can talk to your employer about it, I urge you to seek an alternative source of help. There’s plenty out there. Just remember that the worst thing you can do is suffer alone, and you don’t have to.
• In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here
• Jordan Oldbury is a freelance writer and blogger from Perth, Australia
This article first appeared on ‘The Guardian’ on 16 February 2016.