REACH OUT AT WORK
Years ago, I failed a colleague. Badly. Ignorance is my excuse. No, actually, it’s my reason. But it doesn’t make it any easier to accept.
You see I was her line-manager and she was spiraling into depression. Yet I had no idea and I missed the signs. Every. Single. One.
Her detachment from everyone else; lack of involvement in initiatives; unwillingness to do beyond the bare minimum; and mental absence had increased slowly over time. It frustrated me – Little Miss Efficient, Organised, Motivated, Perfectionist, Leave-Your-Problems at Home – hugely. Something niggled away at me, telling me it wasn’t right, but I assumed she’d just had enough, wanted to leave or something similar.
It all came to a head when she missed a very significant deadline. She didn’t only miss it, but she went off sick with no explanation, excuses or apologies. And she left me well and truly up to my neck in it. A young mum, I disappeared from family life for forty-eight hours to somehow meet an unachievable deadline. Locked in a small room with documents and records that belonged to someone else’s logic, I battled through to make sure that damn deadline was met. I was so angry. Angry with my colleague. Angry with my boss. Angry with the world.
But not angry with myself.
Perhaps I should have been.
Fast-forward many years and Little Miss Efficient, Organised, Motivated, Perfectionist, Leave-Your-Problems at Home, crashed. Big time. I went from active and energetic mum, teacher and leader to a diagnosis of severe depression and PTSD within a couple of months.
I now know that at least some of that anger should have been directed at me. Well, maybe not anger. That’s not exactly helpful. But certainly none of it should have been directed at my colleague.
All the signs were there. She had been screaming silently for help for months. She had changed. She was no longer the person she used to be. Yet my naïve, inexperienced and success-driven mind, didn’t notice. As someone who had always been in control of her emotions, I genuinely thought that problems could be left at home.
Oh how wrong I was! And clearly I had to go through a colossal crash in order to recognise that. Not only did my crash need to be colossal, but I have also been humbled by the exact opposite reaction from my workplace (a different one, I might add).
During a three month period when I was struggling but didn’t know it, and a twelve month absence from work, I was shown nothing but concern, compassion and understanding from my line managers and HR. This has made such a huge difference to my recovery. Knowing that my job was always open for me; that they would support me in any way they could to get me back to work, once I was ready; and that, once there, I wouldn’t be expected to simply return and ‘get on with it’ has helped me get back to where I am today. Teaching part-time. Thriving on the buzz of being at the heart of a classroom again. And loving every minute of it.
I could choose to feel very guilty about that colleague. I had no idea for a long time how much I had failed her. Well, having been given the opposite treatment, I have now learnt how important that is and that, yes, indeed, failure is an understatement.
Yet I’ve learnt so much more than this during my intense and agonising illness:
· Listening to others’ stories, and simply being by their side, can make a real difference.
· Advice, solutions and quick-fixes are rarely needed.
· A leading comment or question can often be someone’s desperate plea for you to see their pain.
· That ‘attention-seeking’ behaviour is not childish or manipulative…it means someone needs help.
· Significant changes in behaviour are significant. For example, sleeping patterns, mood swings, eating habits, appearance etc
· Professional support is not always needed but don’t be the judge of that if you aren’t a professional.
So instead of feeling guilt, I’m feeling determined. Determined to turn this experience into something positive. Determined to give back the care, compassion and understanding I received, in any way I can. Determined to make up for the colleague I failed. And determined to help spot the signs in anyone else who might be struggling.
So, on my return to a different school, but for the same organisation, I made the decision to be open and honest about my mental health. That’s not to say I spend all day talking about it. I’m there to teach. To do the job I love. To inspire children and their love of learning.
But, if I’m asked about mental health, I am open. In the last three months that has led to four people reaching out to me. People who have shared their pain or the pain of their loved ones. It’s been a privilege and an honour to hear their stories; and to help them in any small way I can. It has also been a shock. A shock to realise I spent the first forty years of my life blind to people’s mental health struggles and blind to their need to open up.
If you see a colleague* struggling, please reach out and make yourself open to hearing their story. If you feel you are unable to do that, please ask someone else to do it. Remember, it affects 1 in 4 of us. That’s potentially 25% of your colleagues who deserve a voice and deserve support without the fear of any stigma or shame that comes with it.
* Needless to say, your role in this is not any less important if you don’t have colleagues. The same logic could be applied to your friendship circle, the local crèche, a church group…whoever.
Basically…anyone, anywhere, always. Please!
If you'd like to read more conversations with Mental Muthas, click HERE.
Women talking unashamedly about their mental health and parenting innit