Living (and working) with a mental health condition

The week of the 13th May, 2024 is Mental Health Awareness week in the UK. Thankfully, more often these days, employers and individuals take mental health seriously. Mental health matters to us all, whether you realise it or not. For some people, like myself, mental health is entrenched into almost every aspect of life. I have a condition called Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), also known as clinical depression. The easiest way I’ve found to describe my condition is it’s like Bipolar Disorder, without the manic episodes (sometimes called “highs”).

Too often in the past I have downplayed or made a joke of my condition and its impact on my life. That’s one of my well-exercised coping mechanisms – I was undiagnosed for over a decade and did my best to work around the condition with coping mechanisms. However, that jovial approach might give the impression that MDD, or other similar mental health conditions, are easy to live with. They’re not.

MDD means that sometimes, with no pattern or trigger, for weeks or months at a time I am in a deep depression. From the moment I wake up, to the moment I go to sleep I have intense feelings of worthlessness, sadness, emptiness, and hopelessness – no matter how good or bad life may be at the time. It becomes much harder to fall asleep, and I wake more often, which affects my energy levels. Motivation, interest, and enthusiasm, even for the things I usually enjoy are low or non-existent. MDD impacts my cognitive functions, most noticeably my memory. As an episode goes on my capacity to take on emotionally or mentally challenging tasks (sometimes even conversations) drops considerably.

During an episode of depression my brain will cherry-pick negative information around me to confirm negative narratives that have overtaken my mind. This cherry-picking can snowball from seemingly trivial things. My brain is usually logic-driven, and while I can and do use logic to tell myself that it’s my condition and my brain working against me and not an objective reality, it doesn’t remove the feelings caused by my condition.

An often-overlooked aspect of mental health conditions is the toll on your physical health. It can be a very stressful existence and take similar physical tolls to long-term stress on your health and wellbeing.

All this is to say, managing a mental health condition during their toughest periods for weeks and months on end while still showing up and working to your usual standard is extremely difficult.

Understandably, the workplace can be tricky to navigate for people with mental health conditions. It’s important to note that you don’t need to have a mental health condition to experience poor mental health, and poor mental health is just as challenging whether you have a condition or not. So, what can employers and workplaces do to help people experiencing periods of poor mental health?

Culture is possibly the most important factor in promoting positive mental health. An open and supportive mental health culture empowers people to act to improve their mental health. I’m very fortunate that Speed has numerous trained mental health first aiders, and an open culture when it comes to discussing mental health. I feel comfortable explaining to my manager why I might appear “off my game” in work, and adjustments can be made if needed.

Speed hold regular wellbeing walks and meditation sessions – giving time away from the desk with activities proven to help improve mental health. Wellness plans are completed with our appraisal system documenting things that can negatively impact wellbeing, triggers or warning signs, and plans for avoiding or managing the things that can negatively impact our mental health. These initiatives are simple, low cost and effective ways a company can help care for their employees.

Modern workplace features that are taken for granted can be extremely helpful to people experiencing poor mental health. Flexible working will suit people whose sleep patterns are being disrupted. Working from home gives people back their usual commute time to focus on improving their mental health, as well as an hour of at-home lunch break. I have used an at home lunch break for a 20-minute nap when my sleep is being affected, benefitting my mental health as well as my performance in the afternoon.

Poor mental health can be an extremely isolating experience. Knowing your employer will be understanding, supportive, and willing to adjust work for you in times of need lifts a weight from your shoulders. It’s hard to carry on as usual if you’re experiencing poor mental health, and doing so leaves you emotionally and mentally drained long before 5pm. Support from employers gives back to those around you by helping you get home not running on empty. If you support your employees in improving their mental health, you get more energised and productive employees, more of the time.

I’m not fond of giving advice, but in this instance my experience navigating periods of poor mental health may prove useful for someone who is struggling or who knows someone who is struggling with poor mental health.

Be ready to listen – to yourself or to others. As well-intentioned as advice or problem-solving may be, often people experiencing poor mental health just need someone to listen to them and not to feel pressured to have a solution to what they are experiencing.

Talking therapies can make a significant impact. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) was helpful for me in my mid-twenties. I learned to be more observant of myself, and more analytical of my surrounding circumstances. Knowing what my brain is doing establishes a sense of control over the situation.

Be as open as you can. I say “as you can” because I understand it is extremely difficult to talk about mental health problems. Talking about mental health takes away the power and stigma that poor mental health has. It’s no longer a secret to be struggled on with, it’s a thing that can be spoken aloud and improved. If someone confides in you remember to thank them for sharing with you. Thanking someone will positively reinforce that sharing was a good thing to do.

Talk Club are a UK male mental health charity founded around asking “how are you, out of 10”. This simple adjustment can help you open positive conversations when the answer might otherwise be “yeah, I’m fine”. There’s a link to Talk Club and several mental health resources at the end of this article.

Don’t be afraid of medication, if you are advised by a doctor, but understand they’re not a panacea and often require trial and adjustment. I went through a few medications at different doses before I found what worked best for me.

I’ll leave you with some words I wish I’d heard when I first experienced the effects of MDD.
You are not alone, and you don’t need to suffer alone. You are not defined by your mental health. Having a mental health condition doesn’t make you a failure, weak, or lessen your value in any way.

Life won’t always be easy, but it won’t always be as tough as when it’s toughest. 

Joseph Westley – Senior Digital Consultant