FIRST PERSON: Signed Off
I’m sat in a generic, soulless corporate coffee shop at a national railway station. Watching the world go by blankly. Christmas songs play tin-like across the shop, jarring in my head. Happiness; everywhere. Or so it seems. Watching people bustling along, seemingly happy and content, while I sit in what feels like an isolated mental bubble.
I’m on my way back home… home as in my family home, having just been ‘signed off’ work for a ‘stress related illness.’ Anxiety, depression, simply burning out….However you want to look at it, it’s a position I have not been in before, and one that feels alien to me. I am not from the sort of stock who has time off for ‘stress.’ It is a notion that my family have always laughed about, as loving and caring as they are. And personally, although being very sympathetic and open to the issue of mental illness, I’ve still never thought that it was quiet right to take time off in such a way… to ‘give in’ or show a weakness. Surely I should just suck it up and get on with it?
It’s a confusing feeling. Having said that… I also know that I’m not quite right. After a year in which my marriage has broken down in pretty horrendous circumstances, including the involvement of someone at work, for me then to be thrown (happily I will say) into a role of greater responsibility and pressure, with no real holiday to speak of since last year… perhaps I have just finally broken down? Is that so bad? Why do I still feel guilty and anxious about it?
I can’t help feel that although awareness is now building around mental health issues, most workplaces are still only really paying lip service to the issue. I work in an environment where we are constantly told that being busy, hectic and dealing with day to day chaos is simply down to the industry we have chosen. There is an attitude of “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Yes we enjoy various work place benefits, a lovely working environment, private health care, a good night out on a Friday… but is all that really a substitute for being able to go home on time and not feeling consistently anxious and under pressure? We might all quite enjoy the absolute drunken debauchery that a Friday night tends to bring… but has anyone ever thought about why, when 5:30pm on a Friday hits we feel the need to chuck copious amounts of alcohol down our throats? Are we desperately trying to erase the week with a Jager or four, knowing that Monday morning will be here before we know it?
One of the big problems is that these sort of feelings are so difficult to spot in people. I feel pretty certain that I wasn’t seen as a potential ‘depressive.’ Often it is those who appear the strongest, happiest and the most in control that are perhaps struggling the greatest. How can he be stressed or depressed? He seems alright… he’s having a bloody good time on the tequila tonight anyway! He’s always having a laugh in the office, he’s getting paid well enough, he’s in a senior position, it’s part of his job to be stressed.
A workplace’s approach to mental health needs to be about a bit more than just a poster in the staff room. The difficulty is, I think, for all the good work that is going on around mental health issues, attitudes are still very difficult to change. Naturally, the sort of people that rise high within the world of business, the sort of people running companies, tend to be pretty unsympathetic to anyone showing weakness, or those appearing to not be able to just ‘get on with it.’ That’s what it feels like in my case, anyway. I’m looking forward to being proved wrong. One of the most memorable compliments I got from someone at work as a manager was “thanks for being NICE. A quality that is underrated at work it.” That meant a huge amount to me, and I think he had a good point.
I have only been off work for a few days and still don’t feel relaxed. There is a fear there about when I will return to the office… the first day back, the overly sympathetic, pitying looks. The fear of being treated differently, the fear that I will now be seen as a weak link. For all the support and lip service that will be paid to compassion, ultimately, deep down, I will be seen as ‘not up to it.’ It feels like taking time off is going to be more stressful and counterproductive than not.
For anyone who hasn’t experienced these sort of feelings of anxiety and stress… you may not be able to fully understand them, and that’s ok. But if you know someone who has, I urge you… treat it like any other sort of illness. Ask if they’re feeling better, say it’s good to have them back… and then get on with it and treat them like you always have. I refer you to a quote attributed to Plato… “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”