Ashley Moeder didn’t want to call in sick to work. And it’s not because the 23-year-old is some kind of a workaholic martyr.
Moeder says she has been diagnosed with chronic depression, anxiety, PTSD and OCD, and she’s had bad experiences asking for time off — even if it was just for an hour to recover from a panic attack.
“I’ve had bosses that are like, ‘That’s not real,’” says Moeder, who lives in Wichita, Kansas. “I’ve had people tell me to just suck it up and that I was being a crybaby. I’ve been called names.”
An estimated 44.7 million adults in the United States have experienced a mental illness in the past year, according to a 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
And although the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits employers from discriminating based on mental health, even an ADA informational site includes FAQs explaining the myths and stigmas associated with mental illness.
So when Moeder had a mental breakdown at her previous job, she was afraid to speak up.
“I didn’t want to talk to my boss because I was scared about it, I was scared what people would think,” Moeder says. “But I sucked it up and I talked to them.”
To her surprise, her manager told her that the company had an employee hotline staffed by counselors and also offered the option to take unpaid time off to allow her a chance to recuperate.
Moeder never would have known those work benefits existed if she had tried to hide what she was going through.
“You can always blame it on something else, but I think honesty is the best policy because you never know what other people are struggling with,” Moeder says. “You don’t know what your resources are unless you ask.”
If you’re one of the millions of Americans with a mental illness, read on for strategies to help you deal with it at work.
Dealing With Depression and Other Mental Illnesses at Work
Although the symptoms of mental illnesses might not be as obvious as the flu, the sickness can be just as debilitating, particularly at work, points out Dr. Donna Hamilton, CEO of Manifest Excellence and author of “Wellness Your Way.”
“You can’t work well if you don’t feel well,” says Hamilton, who stresses it’s essential to start by consulting a qualified medical practitioner. (If you’re having trouble affording help, check out this article that lists free or cheap mental health resources.)
And although we present tips to help you deal with depression and anxiety at work, mental illness is as individual as the person experiencing it, so do what works for you.
Work Benefits That Help When You Have a Mental Illness
Benefits vary by employer, but an Employee Assistance Program could be the most vital work resource when dealing with a mental illness, according to Lisa Jing, founder/CEO of Synergy at Work.
“EAPs are oftentimes one of the first points of contact for an employee who’s struggling,” Jing says. “They offer counseling, therapy and education — everything from one-on-one to group support.”
To find out if your company offers this free, confidential resource, check with your supervisor, human resources manager or employee intranet, Jing advises. Also ask your health insurance provider about what kind of coverage your plan provides for mental health services like counseling.
How to Get Time Off Work for Depression or Anxiety
Asking for a mental health day can be a stressor unto itself if you’re worried about your employer’s reaction, notes Moeder. But you should think of it as any other illness.
“If you’re sick and puking, you’re going to stay home for the day,” Moeder says. “If your mental health is so bad that you can’t function for the day, it’s the same thing as puking. You can’t work effectively; you need to stay home.”
Taking time off to reset and refresh can be essential, but Jing is cautious about using benefits like short-term disability since a steady work schedule and reliable group of co-workers can be beneficial to someone who’s struggling with mental illness.
“Once the employee leaves the work environment, they tend to become much, much more isolated,” Jing says. “It interrupts their income, and they lose structure to their day.”
And if asking for an entire day off seems like too much, Moeder suggests asking your employer for breaks during a shift.
“As far as anxiety or PTSD goes, when you have an episode, it’s not an all-day thing,” Moeder says. “Sometimes it’s just 30 minutes to an hour, and then you’re fine.”
Create a Work Environment That Works for Your Mental Health
If your work environment triggers your mental illness, altering the physical space can make a difference, Jing suggests.
Requesting small changes from your employer — like eliminating a distracting noise or changing from fluorescent to LED lighting — can improve your mental outlook.
Even if you feel uncomfortable discussing a diagnosis, you can address specific tasks and challenges with your manager to come up with healthy solutions that let you stay productive, according to Jing.
“The only thing that needs to be communicated is what the needs are,” she says. “Sometimes employees who are very depressed have a difficult time with early morning meetings. Would it be possible for the employee to attend remotely?”
For Moeder, asking managers to write down instructions and feedback prior to a meeting helps her feel less anxious.
“When people raise their voice, I feel like I’m getting in trouble at work — I’ll start crying, and I’ll go into an anxiety attack,” says Moeder, who explains that reading a report allows her to absorb the information without getting overwhelmed. Making these changes can actually help work become a steady influence for people who are overwhelmed in the rest of their lives, according to Jing.
“When we are struggling, work can be a stabilizer,” Jing says. “It can be a positive pillar of consistency.”
Tips for Minimizing Stress at Work
Calming techniques can also be effective when dealing with anxiety or panic throughout the workday, according to Hamilton.
Deep breathing and mindfulness exercises are two ways to help your body physiologically calm down, she says. And if a situation is causing you acute stress or you’re starting to feel overwhelmed at your desk, try taking a walk.
“Think of it as a modified fight-or-flight,” says Hamilton, who recommends going outside or looking out a window at a natural environment. “You’re actually giving your body a chance to get up and move and leave a situation.”
Learning strategies that work for you is more important that trying to completely eliminate stress, Hamilton points out.
“Life happens; jobs are stressful. The goal is not to be in this perpetual Zen bliss state,” Hamilton says. “A healthier goal is to make sure that we have have tools in our pocket.”
For Moeder, a change in employment has made a big difference. She’s now working in a two-person insurance agency with a boss who accommodates her therapy and doctor appointments and understands her occasional panic attacks.
But she still hears from otherwise successful friends who struggle with mental illness, too embarrassed or afraid to find help at their workplace.
“They’re in fear of losing their jobs over this, so they’re working to the danger point,” Moeder says. “You shouldn’t be ashamed of one part of your life if you very much have pride in the rest of your life.”
In the end, sometimes all it takes is finding a sympathetic ear.
“Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” Moeder says. “A lot of people just want somebody to talk to.”
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