We need to be able to talk about our mental health in the office every day, not just today

It’s one thing for an employer or organisation to say they take mental health seriously and prioritise the wellbeing of their staff. But it’s another entirely to actually be confronted with a shaking, crying staff member in the midst of a panic attack in the office toilets while deadlines are fast approaching, clients are calling and to-do lists are climbing. 3 Phase Marketing's Marnie Vinall shares her story on R U OK? Day.

Since I can remember, I have always struggled with anxiety and spikes of depression.

Today is R U OK? Day

In high school, I can remember so vividly being terrified to go to graduation because I would by surrounded by joyous peers, their celebration and excitement a glistening reminder of how low I was feeling.

There are times when I’m doing ok, gliding through the world without sweating and shaking at every turn, and then there are periods when I feel, well, hopeless.

Last year was a particularly bad year. In fact, it was to date the worst of my life. I feel into a huge pit of depression that saw the breakdown of the relationship with the person I thought I was going to marry, had me unable to get through a single morning without crying in my car in the work parking lot, and then to round it off, my dad got cancer and I felt like the ground between feet had fallen away. (I would like to note, he’s ok now – defeated the bastard).

It might seem odd then for ‘lucky’ to be an adjective I would use to describe myself during this time. But it is. I was extremely lucky to be surrounded by an amazing support system, including friends and family, I was able to quit my job and take time off knowing that if things really hit the fan, I could lean not just emotionally, but also financially, on my family. And maybe the luckiest part, given what seems as the rarity of it, I had an employer who took my mental health seriously and put my wellbeing above my work output while in the midst of the worst breakdown of my life.

For those playing along at home, yes, I did just say I both quit my job and had an employer who was understanding.

For context: it was late August when I came crying to my boss, saying my mental health was so bad I couldn’t hack it any longer and needed time off. She then employed me for a further two months while I worked out what an Earth I was going to do to pay rent and she found a replacement for me. And then kept me employed for two days a week in a different role.

Now, I am back employed full-time.

Yes, bosses like this do not come around very often and I know that. I was lucky, and that’s the point.

I was lucky because I worked within an organisation that allowed me to speak to my superior about how I was feeling and when I did, my illness was treated with the seriousness it deserved. I wasn’t told to pull it together and get the job done. I wasn’t yelled at or patronised. And I was given a full week of mental health leave off.

It was truly an exceptional example of how to treat mental health within an organisation, but it was also exceptional, because how uncommon this response is.

In a headspace article on managing mental health in the workplace, they list the pros and cons of even just speaking up in the first place. In ‘Reasons not to tell’, they list, “You might be worried about potential discrimination, harassment or reduced opportunities for career progression”, “For some people, the depression and/ or anxiety may pass but the label and associated stigma can be permanent”, and “Some employers fail to provide the legal level of support or follow legislative requirements”.

And this is startling, given the prevalence of mental health conditions within the country.

It’s estimated that 45% of Australians will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. And in any one year, around 1m Australian adults will suffer from depression, and 2m from anxiety.

Today is R U OK? Day: “A day created to inspire and empower everyone to meaningfully connect with the people around them and start a conversation with anyone who may be struggling with life.” As they put it, “You don’t need to be an expert to reach out – just a good friend and a great listener”.

In recent years, I’ve seen organisations, companies and influencers promote how important it is to support a cause like this.

But in some cases, I’ve seen mental health trivialised by organisations as they pat themselves on the back for caring about their employee’s wellbeing without actually doing anything to manage mental illness within their staff.

It’s not just about caring one day of the year, we need to care every day.

There is a huge amount of stigma still surrounding mental health and coming to your boss with anxiety or depression is a lot harder than announcing that you have a headache or the flu. It’s just not treated the same.

I also understand that many employees aren’t given the tools (yet) to handle mental illness within their staff. It’s one thing for an employer or organisation to say they take mental health seriously and prioritise the wellbeing of their staff. But it’s another entirely to actually be confronted with a shaking, crying staff member in the midst of a panic attack in the office toilets while deadlines are fast approaching and clients are calling and to-do lists are climbing.

However, those in high positions need to treat mental health with the same compassion and seriousness as mine did. Last year, when my co-worker had a migraine in the office, she was sent home straight to rest. When I had an anxiety attack in the same week, I was sent home to rest. It was treated with the same level of care and importance.

More employers should take note of this.

Today is a wonderful exercise in recognising the seriousness of mental illnesses but it’s not enough to only show support one day of the year. Employers need to have a hand in de-stigmatising mental illness in their organisations and make it clear that their staff can talk about how they’re doing.

We need be asking “Are you ok?” every day. Not just today.

Marnie Vinall is a publicist and copywriter for 3 Phase Marketing 


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