IMPACT@Work: Working With A Mental Illness

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.

MDSC Ameera

The way I’ve always seen it is simple – I have to put in 150% in order for it to translate to someone else’s 100%, which can then be perceived as 80%. It means that before I even get into the office for my 9am meeting, I’ve already had to force myself out of bed, address the anxiety building in my chest, and get ready for a full day with a smile on my face. It means I’ve already thought of the contingencies in place should my mental health get in the way of me being on my A-game throughout the day. By the time someone without these concerns is thinking about starting their day, I’ve already endured the toughest part of mine.

Many people will tell you that having a good social presence at work is important for your team and coworkers to get to know you. Although it may not be in my job description to make small talk, or be very sociable, it certainly helps. However, when dealing with social anxiety, having to do these small things is actually quite a big ask. I found that even if I was really good at the actual capabilities that my job required, I had to overcome my social anxiety in order to get noticed or have my efforts recognized. Now, this is somewhat unfair – my success shouldn’t have depended on my ability to thrive in social situations when it wasn’t required for the position, but it doesn’t seem like a big deal to those that don’t deal with severe anxiety or social phobias. However, as of right now, it is how things work, and a strong example of how putting in extra effort (150%), is still perceived as a normal effort.

This brings about a bigger discussion around how we reward and recognize individuals for work that is outside their scope, and forces us to ask if we are making employees with mental illnesses go above and beyond in ways that may not be feasible for them depending on their circumstances. It is also a good opportunity for us to think about the things  that may seem simple for us, but could be quite difficult for someone with a mental illness. Learning to communicate with senior management, taking constructive feedback, and working through ambiguity come with a slightly bigger challenge to tackle when dealing with mental health concerns. It doesn’t mean people with mental illnesses aren’t capable or should be excluded from these opportunities, it just may mean that we need extra time in order to prepare ourselves for it.

I find communicating with senior leaders to be a huge trigger for my anxiety, yet I know it’s one of the most important skills for me to work on because it’s great for visibility and getting ahead. But it also means that the days leading up to a presentation aren’t just full of the usual anxieties around communicating effectively, I also have to answer to my own personal, heightened anxiety around it. I have to put in extra effort to get the same results that a neurotypical colleague may get, and that can get tiring for people who don’t have a supportive manager and team behind them.

My ability to put in 150% at work also relies on my ability to limit what I do outside of work hours. If I know I’m in overdrive at work to compensate for the lack of motivation that often comes with depression, or the reduced focus and concentration when my anxiety is heightened, I have to make trade offs in my down time. In order to be ready for my A-Game on a Monday morning, my weekends are reserved for rest and relaxation as much as possible. Or, if I know that Wednesday mornings are generally more stressful, then my Tuesday nights are reserved for extra self care. You may be thinking that we all have stressors at work and they bleed into our personal lives, and you’re completely right. For someone with a mental illness, those boundaries and time management skills are even more crucial, because they don’t just determine our performance at work, but they can shape our entire mindset.

Another concept I think about a lot is motivation. A lack of motivation is often associated with laziness, but a lack of motivation is also a very common symptom of depression or other mental illnesses. Here’s the thing though: people with depression aren’t lazy. So even though a person may actually be very dedicated to and passionate about their job, their depression could hinder them from seeming like they’re giving 100% (even if they’re giving 150%!) It can be very frustrating when you don’t have motivation to do your job, especially if there’s this part of you that really wants to get it done, and you have building anxiety about not getting it done. During the talk this past week, we talked a lot about how to deal with that lack of motivation when you have deliverables that must be met and can’t be pushed off. For me, managing my time and being as proactive as possible is crucial. I don’t know what the next day, or even the next hour, may feel like, so when I’m feeling good I make sure to work extra hard so that my output is higher and can compensate for when my output is lower. 

The final point I want to make is this: even with 150% from my end, and an ability to understand when I need to set limits and when I need to push myself, being able to find success at work does not just involve me. It involves my whole team – my managers, my coworkers, and other key people I work with on a daily basis. I can work harder, manage my time better, communicate more efficiently, and overcome as many barriers as possible on my own, but it still requires a ton of support from those around me.

I have an important call to action today for all of you, regardless of if you deal with a mental illness or not: Make your workplace better. Make it more inclusive. Make it more accessible.

Here are some questions to consider to make that happen:

  • What are you doing at work to support the people around you?
  • What are practices you can change so that they are more accommodating and supportive of varying mental health needs?
  • How are you leveling the playing field so that people with mental illnesses who put in 150% are recognized for it?
  • How is your organization supporting, and not punishing, employees who can’t give the same 100% as other people?
  • How much more could your colleagues and employees achieve if they had all the support they needed to be their very best?


Keep Surviving by Living.


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