Managing dynamics with co-workers can be complicated enough without the added influence of a mental illness on one of you. Are you friends? Are you just people who spend most of your day together but don’t really know each other? What boundaries are in place as far as discussing your personal life? All these questions are difficult to answer right away, and the answers can often change over time, depending on how closely you work together. Add a mental health issue for one party (or both), and the dynamics are further complicated.
I’ve been on both sides – the coworker with the mental health issue, and the coworker curious about if someone else is struggling. I’ve found that no matter where you stand, broaching the conversation is a huge grey area. It’s easier with managers, because they have a duty to accommodate, and their job is to be there to deal with factors that influence performance, but a coworker doesn’t quite have a place.
As the person with a mental illness, I often worry that my coworkers will feel like my mental illness hinders me from being a strong team member, or they think I may not pull my weight. I worry that disclosing my mental illness will make them see me differently and they won’t value my performance as much as a peer. On the other side, I worry that if I don’t tell them, they won’t understand why I do some things differently, or they’ll see my accommodations as an unfair advantage or favoritism. I also struggle between feeling like it is none of their business to know what I’m dealing with, and wanting to owe them an explanation so that we are all on the same page.
I’m very selective with how much I will tell a coworker – and my journey with mental illness is literally all over the internet. A story about suicide is the first thing that comes up with you Google my name, and I’m assuming some coworkers have Googled me because, let’s be real, I’ve definitely Googled some of them. Part of the reason I don’t tell them is definitely because of the stigma, and part of it is I don’t want to add any sort of burden to them or make them feel they’ll have to do more work. I’d rather they know me outside of my mental illness first, and then tell them about it later.
I’ve gone against this once – I was just starting my career and was working in the mental health sector. Myself and four other interns started at the same time, and worked extremely closely together on all our projects and deliverables. Given we were working in mental health, we all kind of assumed each other was dealing with something, so soon after we started, we decided to go out as a team and get to know each other a bit better. We all opened up about our issues and how it impacted the way we work and think, and it made us understand each other’s needs that much more. It was this unique and amazing situation where when I would talk about something that gave me a great deal of anxiety, someone else would take care of it, and I would do the same for them. Sometimes I’d be visibly anxious or panicky, and someone would notice, but here’s the best part: it was a GOOD thing when they noticed. They would quietly IM me and ask if I wanted to grab some air or if I needed anything, and I would do the same for them. We encouraged each other to acknowledge our struggles and take care of ourselves first, because the work would be taken care of. If that dynamic could be replicated over a number of teams and organizations, it would be so much easier to support each other and ensure no work slips through the cracks.
On the flip side, I’ve seen many coworkers dealing with different issues, and struggled with knowing if it would be acceptable to reach out. Some people don’t want to share what they are experiencing in a professional setting because of the potential implications or consequences, and others don’t feel comfortable enough with nearing the boundary where personal and professional conversations blur. It’s one thing to ask a coworker about their favourite brunch spot, and it’s another entirely to ask if they’re feeling okay, like, really feeling okay.
A couple of years ago, one of my coworkers moved to a different team. We were previously on the same team, and got along really well – we would often go for lunch or coffee together, and had grabbed a beer after work on a couple of occasions. I saw he was struggling with his new role, and wanted to reach out and help, but was unsure of my place. I didn’t want to bombard him or make him uncomfortable and ask about his mental health, even though he was visibly anxious and was often upset because of the stress. I decided to start with a softer approach – we went to pick up lunch and I asked about his new workload. He seemed hesitant to open up and explained that the learning curve was steep. I had previously made a similar transition and decided to open up about how hard it was for me – I explained that I often got overwhelmed and stressed out because of the pressure and empathized as much as I could. Suddenly, it was as if my disclosure had opened the floodgates, and he began talking about the toll it was taking on his mental health. After that day, it was a lot easier to talk about our mental health and how our work was impacting it. I noticed when he was having a tougher day, and tried to offer help or grab him a coffee. I couldn’t always fix the anxiety or stress, but I was familiar with the subject matter and tried to ease the burden on him when I had capacity. Being a supportive coworker to someone dealing with a mental health issue doesn’t mean talking about feelings all the time, it can be as simple as helping distribute the workload a little better, or going on a coffee run.
Sometimes, as a coworker, it isn’t your place to say something. A few months into a new position, I noticed an individual on a cross-functional team was acting differently. They weren’t as positive, fun, or outgoing as before, and their absenteeism was higher. Often strung out with a shorter fuse, I saw all the signs I had seen in myself before when my mental health was deteriorating. I didn’t have a strong relationship with this person, and didn’t feel it was my place to ask how things were going. Instead, I tried to offer my help on some shared projects, in case a lighter workload would help out.
It’s tricky to know what is okay to say or ask, but there’s nothing wrong with “dipping your toes in”, and asking harmless questions about how things are going. If they choose to open up, great! If not, that’s okay too! And if it gets to a point where your work is suffering, or you’re becoming seriously concerned about their mental health, you have a right to speak up. Maybe you don’t feel comfortable talking to them directly, but there is nothing wrong with raising concerns with a senior manager. It doesn’t mean you’re a snitch or calling them out, it could actually be a good thing because other resources could be mobilized to get them the support they need.
Looking back on my experiences, I’ve been really lucky to have had some phenomenal coworkers who made life so much easier.
So thank you.
To the coworker that used to leave her car keys on her desk in case I was having a panic attack so I would have a safe, quiet place to get myself together. Thank you.
To the coworkers that would validate me and reassure me that I was doing great work because it was hard for me to believe it. Thank you.
To the coworker that always made sure he was around to help or reassure me when I was working on a task that caused me extreme anxiety every single week. Thank you.
To the coworker who used to make sure I was eating lunch, because stress and anxiety would make me lose my appetite or I would forget. Thank you.
To the coworker who would send me reassuring messages when I looked like I was at my wit’s end. Thank you.
To the coworker who covered for me and picked up the slack when I was so depressed that my productivity was at an all time low for a couple of days. Thank you.
To the coworker that drove me all the way home even though it was completely out of her way and I was silent the entire drive because I was so anxious. Thank you.
To the coworker that convinced me not to quit when my mental illness told me I sucked at my job. Thank you.
It takes a team for a person to thrive at work with their mental illness. It’s possible, and it’s worth it.
Keep Surviving by Living.