Mental illness at work can be managed

2013-10-10 11:00

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People with emotional problems constantly fight an uphill battle, especially at work. Elsabé Brits speaks from experience.

‘It feels as if my soul has left my body. I sit in the same position for what feels like ages. It feels like somebody is brushing over my skin with shards of broken glass. Through my skull, into the core of my brain. I wonder if the pain will stop if I tear my skin off and my hair out.’

That’s how I described my emotional state a few years ago as I was writing my book. But how do you explain this to your boss? Psychiatric problems are common – one out of five people suffer from a mental illness; they form part of a group of chronic illnesses – like cancer or heart disease.

Globally the emphasis is moving from contagious diseases to chronic illnesses. Angst-driven conditions, depression in all its forms and the various types of bipolar disorder form part of it.

These illnesses influence your emotional states, but they don’t make you ‘crazy’, ‘deranged’ or ‘psycho’.

These stereotypes are partly to blame for the stigma surrounding sufferers of mental illness.

Earlier this year, following the various mass shooting incidents in the US, the emphasis was often placed on the shooters’ ‘mental health’.

These people are mass murderers. Criminals. They shouldn’t be confused with people who live with commonplace mental illness. They don’t fit into the same category and it’s vital to keep the two separated.

All psychiatric conditions are diagnosed and described according to the guidelines in the international standard handbook, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; the fifth edition was printed in May this year. Doctors don’t just look at a patient and make a decision – it is a process done clinically and scientifically.

Illnesses of the mind are chronic conditions of the brain and are caused by a chemical imbalance. People of any race, class or gender can have the illness, and it can’t be fixed with a few weeks of psychotherapy.

Why is there so much pressure on sufferers of these illnesses in the workplace? And so little sympathy? Stress exacerbates the conditions and pressure from a boss to ‘get better’ doesn’t help – in fact, it probably makes the situation worse.

It isn’t possible for a cancer patient to ‘just get better’, and the same can’t be expected from a sufferer of mental illness. It is, however, manageable.

It doesn’t mean the employee can’t work. These illnesses can be managed with the help of professional insight. The best way is by forming a team with a psychiatrist and clinical psychologist. Together you can manage your life – personal and professional – and make the best of your situation. You have to accept your illness and make peace with it, and then you learn to grow with it.

With the acceptance, you also understand that medication will be a permanent fixture in your life. Your employer and colleagues should accept it as such.

More than 10 years ago when I was still very ill, and after a three weeks in hospital and six sessions shock therapy, I returned to work. The world seemed like a foreign place. The shock therapy worked, but it was as if my body and mind were separated.

That morning everything on my desk was packed up – the last pen, paper, bits and bobs, all in a box. ‘Did I die?’ I asked my boss. For a moment I thought I might have. ‘No, the stuff on your desk was a fire hazard,’ was his answer, amid the piles of paper on the desks surrounding mine.

A kind colleague helped me to unpack the box. The office was dead quiet. I cried and had to dig deep to not walk out right then. That evening I did my best and managed not to take my own life. Now, 11 years later, the working environment is much friendlier, thanks to awareness campaigns and the road that my managers have walked together.

Don’t pack your employee’s things into a box. Give him or her the opportunity to recuperate and to be a functioning member of your team. Walk this difficult road together. You’ll be surprised by the things you’ll learn and what you receive in return.

Employer: what to do

• Remember that your employee is uncertain, scared and undergoing major changes in his/her life.

• A good manager should visit a sick employee in the hospital, regardless of why they are there.

• Most employers offer flexi-time. Encourage your employee to see their mental healthcare providers during office hours. The time can be caught up.

• Host an information session about mental health issues and listen to peoples’ responses and concerns. Offer a ‘post box’ for confidential issues to be placed in and to be addressed in private.

• Speak to your employee.

Ask about their fears, stresses and worries in the workplace and address these as far as possible.

• Don’t refer everything to the human resources office because you are afraid of ‘the issue’. It will be mutually beneficial for you and your employee to know as much about what’s going on as possible.

Colleagues: what to do

• When you see someone at work suffering, crying or ill, speak to them privately. Invite them for coffee to talk things through if they need to. Tell them you care.

• If the person doesn’t want to talk about it, leave it be. If they do want to talk, listen intently and keep the conversation private. Don’t gossip.

• If you fear for the person’s life, speak to a manager or supervisor immediately, but only convey as much information as necessary.

• Send an SMS of encouragement.

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