Working in a mental health charity is hugely rewarding but can also come with its challenges; especially if you struggle with your mental health yourself. Anybody working within a mental health charity will deal with difficult topics like suicide, self-harm and the injustice that people living with mental ill health experience. All of this can have an impact on our own minds, too. I have bipolar disorder and generalised anxiety disorder, so staying well at work is vitally important to me, but also that bit more tricky.
I’ve had some pretty bad experiences in past workplaces when it came to disclosing. The period of ill health that led to my diagnosis meant that I wasn’t able to work for four years, and it was pretty frightening to go back into the workplace. It was hard to hide as my medication had side effects that were noticeable (like my very shaky hands which meant I stopped putting sugar in my tea!) and I faced the question; disclose or keep quiet and hope no-one notices? And then if they do, what do you say?
I’m lucky that, in my current workplace, there is an open culture around mental health. All staff have the option of creating a WRAP, which helps us to identify warning signs that we’re beginning to struggle, as well as our own personal strengths and supports.
Within our supervisions, we’re asked about anything in our personal lives that might be affecting our work, and how the organisation can support us, which might be with reasonable adjustments. The bedrock of this is having a good relationship with my manager, and also confidence in HR. Mental health isn’t just something that’s tacked onto other training or support, it’s something embedded into the organisational culture.
The most essential thing my life in terms of my mental health is making sure I get enough rest and don’t get too stressed – hard for any of us! But my workplace has flexitime and options of working from home, which helps me to keep myself balanced. There are days when I simply won’t feel up to working until 5pm, and that’s okay, because I can work a little longer on another day. Likewise, when I’m feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed, working from home can give me the headspace I need.
I also try not to check emails outside of work. This is something I had to train myself to do a bit – but I uninstalled Outlook from my phone so I have to go via the web browser, which makes it a bit harder to just auto-check at 10pm. When I went on holiday recently I took the (gulp!) step of removing all my work social profiles from my phone too so I wasn’t sneakily checking Twitter replies. Having more boundaries at work and home doesn’t come naturally to me, but it is something that is encouraged here and something that is helpful to my mental health. The fact that it is encouraged makes me feel more able to be so.
I’ve been fairly open about my mental health, and indeed, it’s been viewed largely as a strength within my role as I have a genuine empathy and passion for the work that I do, partly due to my own experiences. My mental health issues aren’t just something that happened to me, or that will happen to me; they are part of who I am, my history, and have influenced how I think and feel about the world. To be accepted wholly – because of, not in spite of – makes me feel valued.