I’ve had this blog bouncing about in my head for the last week or so and have been so emotional and upset that It’s been “stuck”. Let’s see if I can shake it loose… settle in, this is a long read …
Mental health and how we handle it in the workplace is something that I have lived with for a while now. Personally, it started back when Willie became ill and I found that I had no idea what to say when people asked how things were going. So I didn’t say anything. I went through months of hell while we struggled privately as a family to try to get Willie help and later, to try to keep him here and stop him from the suicidal thoughts that plagued him.
No one knew except for my very close colleagues who were also my friends. I shuffled my schedule around and had the blessings to have understanding people who supported me and helped me to be where I needed to be. They accepted that there were days that I was in the bathroom crying more than I was at the desk… and I am grateful for them.
When Willie died, it was many weeks before I went back to work. When I did, it was beyond what I could face. The silence and the looks. The hesitancy of anyone to even acknowledge because no one knew what to say. I finally elected to leave my job that I loved. I felt unable to explain what happened if someone did ask.
Flip to a year later and I am in a new city with a new job that I love and I find myself spiralling down quickly. Grief has turned into a depression that had me barely able to make it to work every day before getting home to fall onto the couch and not move until the next morning. Day after day of struggling to not make the same choice that Willie did. The pain more than I wanted to feel. The cutting started to try to stem the thoughts that I was having to do worse and more final things to myself. Eating and sleeping were almost non-existent. I finally went to my doctor and shared how I was feeling and what I was doing. I was terrified and ashamed and the only reason I did that was because of how scared I was of what I might do to myself. There was still a part of me that was not wanting to be gone.
I was lucky, my doctor saw the crisis and before I got home that day I had an appointment made with an urgent intervention center.
What followed was a year of counselling and eventually medication for a short-term to help with severe depression. Throughout it all, I functioned at my job. Barely. Looking back, I don’t know how really. My psychiatrist suggested and strongly encouraged me to take time off, that he felt I needed to for my own safety and to be able to focus on getting well. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I would explain again and again that, as the manager at my office, I would be jeopardizing my job to go in and explain and admit that I wasn’t “ok”. Why? Because the admittance that I’m not well – mentally and emotionally – still carries a very real and large potential to threaten job security. I’m not stupid, I know that we have laws now that say you can’t be fired for that reason. I’m also not stupid and know that companies have ways around labour laws. A drop in job performance, an unacceptable increase in sick days… there are many ways that depression and mental illness can affect you that you can be fired for. My psychiatrist finally convinced me to talk to my supervisor and explain that I was under care for depression and that I was getting help. His reasoning was that if there was a record that I had been open about it, then it was better than trying to hide it and ending up being fired for performance issues and then trying to save my job by divulging the depression.
My company was understanding and supportive but certainly not overly so. I was told that I had holiday days and could use them as needed for days when I wasn’t well enough to come in. And that was that. I regretted immediately saying anything as the “feel” was different from the words of support.
Time went on and I slogged through. Months have passed now and I function. I still have bad days and days that I just can’t make it in. Days that I have a “migraine” or am “just under the weather”. Wonderful euphemisms.
Which brings me to where I am now with a work situation.
A practitioner at work has been slipping in performance for many months now. Without going into details, it has been apparent that job duties have been lacking and it has seriously affected her performance to the point that it was impacting other practitioners and something had to be done. Repeated meetings and deadline for improvement were met with seeming disregard and a lack of respect. Deadline after deadline passed and finally I set up a meeting to discuss termination. It was at that meeting that she finally told me, in sobs so hard I couldn’t understand her even, that she was struggling with a depression so bad she was seeing medical help and had been advised to take a leave of absence. She explained that this had happened years before and she had pushed through and ended up being hospitalized for her own safety and that this time, she was trying to avoid that. She was apologetic… she was exhausted and she couldn’t hide it anymore. I assured her that her job was safe, she could take a medical leave of absence and when ready to return, we would work that out. Her relief was amazing and I left that meeting drained and emotional, feeling both glad that she finally came to me and told me but also sad that she held it in for so long out of fear of not wanting to admit that she “wasn’t strong enough to be ok” (her words).
So here’s where the issues come up. I have been stunned and shocked by the reactions and responses to this situation at work. I had really thought that we, as a society and as compassionate people, had come farther… but apparently not.
One staff member in particular who is privy to the fact that it is a medical leave due to mental health issues shared this info with just about everyone in the office. I had explained it as a “personal medical leave of absence” but office gossip travels faster than wildfire and by the time I talked to the last person I had to, they already had heard.
Here are some of the reactions;
“You know what her problem is, she’s single. Too much time to think. She needs a social life then she’d be fine”
“What she really needs to do is just hunker down and focus and stop dwelling on being sad. What does she have to be sad about anyways?”
“It’s not like there’s anything actually wrong with her. She’s not sick, she’s depressed. Nothing a walk around the block and some change in attitude won’t fix”
These are well-educated people who work in the paramedical field. People who are nice and caring and considerate people. Yet the prevailing sense is that with mental health, it’s not a “real” medical issue. It is, quite simply, all in her head and she should be able to get over it.
The matter worsened for me when I went to advise my supervisor of the development. What I thought would be a simple act of me reporting and letting her know that the other practitioners would cover her hours and that it was all taken care of turned into a nightmare meeting.
I was advised to terminate her contract. Immediately and to replace her. When I explained that wasn’t appropriate I was given clear direction that she had given us just cause by not fulfilling her job duties (she’s a contractor, not an employee) and that we could, at any time, for no cause even, chose to terminate her contract. Again, I reiterated that letting her go because she is taking a leave for mental health issues is morally and ethically wrong.
I was advised that she was a liability now. That she has shown herself to be unreliable and that we can’t be sure this won’t happen again.
I argued that if she had come to us and said that she needed a leave of absence for a physical medical reason like cancer that we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. The response was that was true, but mental illness affects her ability to perform her job in a way that a physical ailment wouldn’t. That we can’t risk someone who is “unstable”.
I am mad and I am more sad than anything else in some ways because the truth is that we, as a society, haven’t come anywhere near as far as we celebrate. Even myself today, working from home because I couldn’t bounce back from the night of tears and depression last night… I didn’t feel that I could say I was having an emotional day and needed self-care. Why? For all the reasons already shown to me. It would make me appear unstable and unreliable and a liability. That my ability to do my job would be questioned. All because it’s mental health and not a physical ailment that afflicts.
So let’s stop patting our collective selves on the back for all the gains and see things for how they really are.
As a note, the practitioner still has her contract and is not being replaced. I am, after all, the manager and I’m sticking to the fact that it hasn’t to start somewhere if we’re going to change this. She’s taking time off to heal and will be welcome when she is ready to return.