In 2019, 35-year-old Nicki Walsh was by all means not well.
She suffered periods where she’d hardly sleep and become super-fixated on specific projects, which would be followed by a severe depressive episode.
“I fell into a deep depression I had never experienced before. Previously it had always been anxiety, or obsessive compulsive behaviours. Things like that,” she tells news.com.au.
“We treated it as depression but it wouldn’t lift even with medication. It would end with me feeling suicidal and that’s when I went back to my psychiatrist.”
Eventually, her symptoms resulted in the diagnosis of Bipolar II disorder which were in line with her dramatic high and low moods. Her immediate and positive reaction to the medication – “I still had my ups and downs but ‘normal people’ ups and downs” she says – affirmed her condition.
It was at this point that the Human Resource Director chose to disclose her diagnosed mental health condition to her employer.
“I had a really great performance review and I said: ‘well that’s nice because I’ve actually been suffering from bad depression over the past six months,” remembers Ms Walsh.
“She was very supportive and said ‘I want to know this stuff about you and I want to help and support you, please make sure you don’t keep it to yourself anymore’.”
Although she knows that not everyone’s experience is this lucky, she says she especially valued her manager’s support when she faced another episode during COVID-19.
“I had an episode where I became suicidal and I needed a day off work but I couldn’t talk to anyone,” she remembers. “I sent her a text and called her in the end and she was amazing.”
“She’s continued to support me through the different medications that I’ve tried or if I’ve needed time off to see psychiatrists and the rest of it.
“She’s also left it to me to tell my colleagues, which is the executive team. I haven’t at this stage but because it just hasn’t come up in conversation.”
Although Ms Walsh believes her admission would have “been well-received” at the height of her illness, she knows she wasn’t “in the right frame of my mind to have people knowing”. She also notes that she was able to continue working and says her professional responsibilities became the ‘only thing” which got her out of bed every morning.
“I wanted to do it on my terms. While my mental condition is not a secret and it’s not something I keep to myself, it’s not something I want to shout into a megaphone either,” she says.
“I choose who to disclose to and how I want to do it, all on my terms.”
TO SHARE OR NOT TO SHARE?
The National Health Survey from 2017-18 estimated one in two Australians aged 16-85 had experienced a mental disorder with 1 in 5 Australians reporting they had experienced a mental disorder in the past 12 months.
The many struggles of 2020 have no doubt compounded these figures. Additional data from SEEK also confirms that 56 per cent of Australians are more aware of their mental health due to COVID-19, with 45 per cent of respondents agreeing that the pandemic impacted their mental health. And yet, it’s a conversation many do not want to have.
Speaking to news.com.au, SEEK’s resident psychologist Sabina Read says those (understandably) nervous about having the conversation with their employer need to reframe the conversation. Unless you’re at risk of harming yourself or others, there is no legal requirement to disclose mental ill-health, so the reason for sharing your condition should be to find understanding or support, she says.
“We’re not telling for the sake of telling, we’re telling to either educate, or seek adjustments or support,” she continues.
“I know it’s a difficult conversation for people but sometimes just speaking your own story to an appropriate person allows us to normalise that mental illness is everywhere. It doesn’t discriminate and it doesn’t leave its hat at the door when we arrive for work.
However, if you’re unsure whether or not you should even disclose your condition to your manager, Ms Read says you may want to consider doing so “if your mental health condition is impeding your day-to-day life”.
“That means if it’s impacting your sleep, your relationships, your concentration, your self-esteem. If any of those things are being affected continuously – so not just a once off or a couple of bad days – it may be time to speak up.”
From the perspective of a HR professional, Ms Walsh adds that if your manager isn’t receptive to your chat, there are other avenues you can pursue.
“Follow whatever your company’s process is,” she says. “You can find someone more senior, chat to the EAP (employment assistance program) and go and see your doctor and tell them you’ve tried to disclose this to your manager.
“Just don’t walk away and close yourself in. There are other jobs out there. No job is worth your poor mental health.”
HOW TO TALK ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH WITH YOUR MANAGER OR BOSS:
If you don’t know where to start or how to begin the conversation with your manager, Ms Read shares the following tips to get you started.
1. Give your employer a heads up beforehand
While it doesn’t have to be detailed, she recommends giving your manager or boss some form of a “preamble in an email” or a quick call before your meeting to flag that you want to discuss your mental health.
2. Briefly explain how it impacts you
If you’re stressed over knowing how much of your condition to disclose, Ms Read says you can be brief and there’s no need to go into a clinical diagnosis if you don’t want to.
“Now if you feel that your mental illness is not impacting what you do – maybe you have depression or anxiety but you can manage it through exercise, diet, and psychologist – then there’s no need to tell,” she says.
3. Share tangible, observable behaviours
Instead of general phrases like “I’m not coping,” Ms Read says you need to be clear about how your poor mental health is impacting you.
“Maybe it’s affecting your sleep, your concentration levels or the hours you can work,” she continues.
“Otherwise we’re making an assumption that the other person knows how it’s going to land for us and there’s no way we can know that.”
4. Use this time to tell you manager what they can do to support you
“You could say: I’ve got a sense of what’s useful to me and I want to share this with you,” she adds.
Although she acknowledges this may be difficult if you’re experiencing a period of poor mental health, pre-planning some strategies on how your workplace can support you can make the meeting more productive.
“I think that when we take the time and dig deep, you can get some understanding of what you’re looking for, whether that’s understanding, acceptance or to dispel judgment,” she says.
“It’s not easy but it can help bring a sense of agency, clarity and accountability.”
This article was created in partnership with SEEK