Earlier this week I spoke at the Mood Disorders Society of Canada’s Transitions to Community Program, which helps people facing a variety of issues transition into the workforce and their communities. A key focus of the talk was how to thrive with a mental illness at work, and be successful despite any barriers I may face.
It was important for me to touch on the fact that thriving didn’t mean an absence of symptoms or barriers, but rather, thriving meant that I was able to find ways to function with the symptoms, and reduce the barriers. In order for this to happen, I have to make significant efforts and put in extra work to achieve the same goals as my colleagues. Another crucial element is keeping lines of communication open with my managers and coworkers so that we can all be on the same page about what I am capable of, and what my limits are.
I’ve had countless conversations with people about their mental illness, and we often discuss the sticky situations surrounding disclosure, and managing mental illness at work. When I first started working, I didn’t understand how to navigate working with a mental illness, as well as disclosing it.
Here are the basics of what you need to know about your rights:
You have the right to ask for accommodations. Mental Illness can fall under disability, and workplaces have an obligation to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities so that you can perform your job adequately. Depression is the leading cause of disability in Canada, which is very costly to employers, so it really is in their best interest as well as yours to come up with a plan of action. These accommodations can include more flexible hours, a schedule that allows working from home, or altering the nature of the work itself if need be.
You have the right to disclosure. This means that it is entirely up to you to decide how much or how little you want to tell your employer about the nature of your condition or disability. You have an obligation to express what limitations you have or accommodations you may need, as well as if your condition will prohibit you from doing your job the way someone else might. You do NOT have to give them details about your condition, and they are not allowed to ask for details. If you’re unsure about if your boss is acting accordingly, or you feel they are asking too many questions, contact your HR representative and they will be able to facilitate the process.
Discrimination because of your mental illness is illegal, and you can make claims against your employer if you feel you have been discriminated against because of your mental illness. For example, it is illegal if your employer knows that you have a mental illness and purposely does not promote you because of it. As a result, many people choose not to disclose their mental illness because they are afraid of the repercussions. Unfortunately, by not disclosing, many people are not granted the accommodations they need to succeed in their position.
I’ve often found that different things work for different people when it comes to dealing with their mental illness at work, though there are many common struggles. I’ve come up with some tips on what works for me, but this doesn’t mean that these will work for everyone.
Decide when (and how much) to disclose ahead of time. This can also depend on the position. If i know that the employer I am speaking with in an interview is more likely to be accommodating, I will share a bit more about my situation. Generally, I will always say the word “disability” during the interview process, because if I am afraid of getting rejected, I would rather it be in the interview process than when I am already working. Some people will argue that they will wait until they are working because then the employer definitely has an obligation to accommodate (as opposed to in the interview when you are simply not selected). Either way, knowing what you may or may not what to say in advance can help you articulate your needs.
Explain your limitations clearly, but have an action plan to ensure your work will be okay. For example, if you have panic attacks and choose to disclose that you need accommodation for them, know what your accommodation should be. Saying something like “I occasionally have panic attacks, and having a secluded, quiet place to go to when this happens is important for me to get back to work sooner rather than later.” This way, the employer knows exactly what you need, and can help you access resources that may help. Another example is if you know you will be going to see a therapist once a week, but you’ll need to be away from work, try an alternative like “On Wednesdays, I need an extended lunch hour for an appointment, but can ensure that my deliverables are still met by the end of the day, even if I come in early or stay late.” By showing you’ve already found a way to work around your needs, you’re showing initiative and an understanding of the organization’s needs.
Give yourself permission to have ups and downs. I know that sometimes I have bad days, and I may not be as chipper or friendly on those days, and I need to be okay with that. Everyone has off days, and mine are sometimes worse than my colleagues. I’m learning to give myself permission to take a sick day to care for my mental health, and I’m also learning that one off day doesn’t negate the other great days I’ve had where I’m fantastic at my job. So if I’m really anxious one day, and I leave at 4pm instead of 5pm, I do my best to not beat myself up over it, because I know that another day when I’m feeling great I will stay until 6pm. I also know that the quality of my work can depend on my mental state, and I don’t want to produce sub par work.
Your mental health comes first. Your work comes second. I’m definitely guilty of forgetting that I am more important than my work, but it’s crucial to work to remember that you’re actually much more important than your work. You need to take care of yourself first (not to mention that your work will suffer anyways if you don’t), and making yourself a priority is in everyone’s best interest. Recognize if work is getting too stressful, or if your hours are getting too long, and find a way to work around it. Perhaps you always take a day off after your busy season to just rest and relax, or maybe you find yourself always working too late so you set dinner plans to ensure you get out at a decent time. Finding ways to make sure you’re taken care of and in a great mental state ensures you can be healthy and productive – a win-win for everyone!
Own it! I’m proud of what I have overcome, and I’m learning to let go of the shame and stigma I’ve experienced because of my mental illness. My mental illness doesn’t make me any less of an employee, and it doesn’t make me any less of a performer. I know I can be successful even with the issues I’ve faced, so don’t allow yourself to preclude yourself from bigger opportunities. A person with a mental health concern can still be a stellar employee, and drive excellent results. Just because I need some accommodations, or more flexibility in certain areas doesn’t mean I can’t do a good job and be the best version of myself more often than now. Believe in yourself, fight for the rights you deserve, and keep moving forward (even if you sometimes go backwards).
What happens when you work in an industry build on creating wellness and providing consumers with greater happiness, comfort, and services that give them a better life? We think of hospitality workers as people that are always happy and smiling, ready to provide stellar customer service, but what happens when an employee is struggling to be that upbeat, happy person? I’m so excited to share Andrea Martineau’s perspective on what it’s like being on the other side of the service desk. It’s well thought out, brings up important issues surrounding cultural appropriation and calls for greater action from employers, employees, and consumers.
Kinsey is an artist, activist, and businessperson living in Toronto. By focusing her business acumen in the arts and culture space, she has accelerated her career at a record-breaking pace at an impactful financial institution, while entrenching herself in an industry she loves and believes in. She holds three financial accreditations, a BCom from the Sauder School of Business (UBC), and currently sits on the Board of Directors of one of Toronto’s leading independent theatre companies. Her free time is spent cooking, at the gym, or dancing around her apartment. She is one of the most impressive, intelligent, and ambitious people I know, and I have been so lucky to witness her incredible journey over the past few years. I’m constantly inspired by what she does, and how she does it, and cannot wait to see her continue to change the world. (more…)