It was two days after my 21st birthday and I was about to start my final year at Oxford University. I ought to have been full of youthful enthusiasm. Instead, I’d just called an ambulance complaining of crippling chest pains and a now-familiar out-of-body sensation. I was convinced I was having a heart attack.
This incident was the latest in a string of panic attacks I’d started to experience when the pressures of my course had become overwhelming. Several times I found myself wandering the university grounds at 3 am, worrying about how my family would react to my death.
With my panic attacks under control for more than a decade, I’m now happily settled in a freelance journalism career. But I’m certain I would have made smarter professional decisions in the past if it weren’t for these struggles with anxiety. As well as sleepless nights obsessing over trivial details, there was a hasty resignation from a full-time job in which deadlines were unmanageable.
According to LinkedIn’s Workforce Confidence Report for December, almost 70% of professionals reported elevated stress levels compared with the previous month. If you’re a woman, you’re more likely to be struggling, with 73% of employed women reporting increased workplace anxiety compared with 57% of men.
Not surprisingly, mental health concerns are escalating particularly quickly for those in professions under threat during lockdown. According to the Licensed Trade Charity, calls to its helpline relating to emotional wellbeing increased by 123% in the 12 months to October 2020.
HLN speaks to recruitment experts for advice on finding a balance in your career if you’re experiencing mental health issues.
The first step in getting your career back on track could be to acknowledge the issue and recognise the relationship between your emotional and professional lives.
‘Every client I’ve worked with has been affected by mental health issues,’ says Dr Rakish Rana, founder of The Clear Coach. ‘Whether that be the entrepreneur who is highly stressed and nearing burnout, the new employee suffering from imposter syndrome and/or a crisis of confidence, or the individual who has mild feelings of depression from being directionless and lacking purpose.’
It’s also crucial to understand the distinction between the temporary mental health issues almost all of us experience and diagnosable mental illnesses, which could affect a person during their entire life. Once you’re armed with this information, you’ll be in a stronger position to devise a strategy for your career goals.
For many people, though not all, talking to your employer could be a vital part of finding a balance between your career challenges and your mental health. Thankfully, increased awareness means you’re more likely to receive a sympathetic response than you would have done even five years ago.
Of course, this isn’t always the case. ‘Having been diagnosed autistic at the age of 44, I wondered how I was going to tell my boss,’ says Kelly Grainger, co-founder of Perfectly Autistic, who is now working with charity Mind on the Mental Health At Work initiative.
‘When I plucked up the courage to tell him, he replied: “Well, you don’t look autistic”. I wasn’t sure what to say. And that’s the problem with any kind of mental illness or hidden disability: if you can’t see it, people don’t believe it’s real.’
Amy Newton, co-founder of Inclusively Tech agrees this conversation can be difficult. ‘It’s worth being prepared that your employer might try to “fix” you,’ says Amy, who has been diagnosed with Bipolar II herself. ‘People who have had limited personal experience of mental health issues will recommend things that aren’t very helpful; but they are trying to be helpful.’
As your employer may have little idea how to respond, she recommends providing as much information as possible during this conversation. For example, you could explain the types of language and communication styles that may help reduce your anxiety
Should you feel you’re being discriminated against on the basis of your mental health, it makes sense to investigate the company’s internal policies for dealing with a grievance, perhaps through the HR department or senior management.
If your condition is classified as a disability, your employer is required by law to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ so that can stay in your job if possible, which may include:
It’s important to note employers are generally not allowed to ask you for any information regarding your mental health during the recruitment process and if they do so, they could be breaking the law.
If you’re searching for a new role, you might want to investigate the culture of any potential employer, says Paula Gardner, careers psychologist and founder of Redundancy Recovery Hub.
‘Will you be working long hours? Are there targets you will need to reach? Both of these can cause stress which could aggravate many mental health issues,’ she says. ‘Be honest with yourself about what you can do and how much stress you can take.’
Although you won’t necessarily need to inform your potential employer about your issues, you can use this information as a filter to work out if the job is right for you.
If you’re struggling with your mental health, your first course of action should be to visit your GP, but there are a number of other organisations that can offer support and guidance.
If I could give one piece of advice to my 21-year-old self, being poked and prodded by paramedics, it would be that no course or job is worth sacrificing your wellbeing. You’ll never be successful in your career if you don’t put your mental health first
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