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Helping employees manage a long-term mental health condition

In the current climate of hyper-vigilance (as if our anxiety levels weren’t already at an all-time high) many of us now know how to spot the signs of stress or mental ill-health. But what about those of us who, like myself, have a mental illness we’re stuck with for life?

How do we manage our neurodiversity in the context of a frantic role in a high-pressure industry? Between work and social lives, family, health and fitness goals, hobbies, ‘me time’ and a myriad of other plates to balance. You’d be forgiven for thinking you need to be superhuman to keep all these plates spinning. It certainly doesn’t fill me with a warm fuzzy feeling when I consider not only my need for routine, but also the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day.

Facing the inevitable

Preventative strategies are all well and good, but we must still tackle the inevitable. Sometimes no matter how mindful you are, mental illness shows up anyway. And no matter how welcoming you are, people will be hesitant to disclose before they suss you out, so you might be managing someone with a long-term mental illness and not even know it.

At the beginning of my journey with mental health activism, although I was shouting loudly in the outside world, I was slightly apologetic and a bit grovelling when talking about my own daily employment needs. As is so often the case for someone with a painful past, I put myself last in my quest to make things better for others. Part of that was about my underlying denial – I’d made it this far in life without having to ask anyone for anything – and my pride got in the way. And part of it was a way to feel I was achieving some level of control over my life. I finally realised that if I wanted to begin a career rather than just having a job, I had to start accepting my difference. Embrace it even.

But not everyone has got that far in their journey. Pride is important to people – especially when they want to be thought of as successful and easy to work with. It’s hard to balance those qualities against mental health since they seem intrinsically linked.

Supporting an employee with a long-term mental health condition

Over the last five years I’ve learned a few lessons I want to share with you.

  1. A line manager with a willingness to learn and an open door is worth a lifetime of flexible working arrangements. Mental illness often adds a level of hidden meaning to the most basic of interactions, and over time these can make or break your management relationship – with your employer and with yourself. That’s why you hear the word ‘talk’ in the name of almost any campaign to promote awareness. Being heard is empowering even if nothing tangible changes as a result – that’s exactly how culture shift happens – so be available and visible, and don’t be fooled into taking the hard line to keep up appearances.
  2. The more I become confident in asking for what I need, the more comfortable my employer is in trusting that what I’m asking is reasonable. But if an employee isn’t sure what they need, present solutions. If you can’t do that at least aim for a few options to get the ball rolling. Being flexible can be hard when you’re already stretched, but it does get easier.
  3. Don’t be afraid to make a plan for the possibility of things going wrong. Let your employees know that asking for support is ok – they’re simply demonstrating a level of insight that many others lack. Position this in a way that lets them know you care for their wellbeing, not that you think something actually will go wrong.
  4. You can’t avoid all triggers all the time, but you can try and do a bit of planning to make sure they’re spread out enough to stop them accumulating. It’s worth having a conversation about what you or someone else they trust might want to look out for. We don’t always either see or want to acknowledge when we’re becoming vulnerable – that’s when someone else can give you a subtle nudge if they notice something you don’t.
  5. Put some decent time into working with them to find their strengths instead of always thinking about weaknesses. The more they sell themselves to others, the more convinced they become themselves. That doesn’t mean pretending to be positive, it means deliberately focusing on improving what you can.

Being neurodiverse isn’t about being wrong, it’s about being different. It’s suited us to make things as they are because most people are wired similarly. Now it’s time to recognise that to push things forward we actually need people who can see solutions others can’t.

And we need to support them to find their niche without feeling guilty about it.