I was working at an agency for some time; I was part of the furniture, liked and reliable. I felt a little taken for granted perhaps, but I was comfortable and getting on with it. But within a year I was signed off with stress and, after some counselling, diagnosed with depression.
The year leading up to being signed off had been hard. A team member wasn’t pulling their weight, so I was covering for and correcting their failings. Despite frequently reporting these personnel and resource concerns, no action was taken. And I began to spiral. I was angry, stressed and upset. It was affecting my sleep. And my thoughts were getting dark, from "Why should I bother" to the odd "Maybe I should jump in front of that Tube".
I flipped from blaming myself to blaming my employers, but I convinced myself that changing jobs wouldn’t make a difference, because everywhere would be the same. It was in this moment that I needed help – I just didn’t know it. Had the workplace protocol for depression not been to "man up", I may have got it.
Instead, my work stress triggered a mini-breakdown. One Monday morning, I couldn’t get out of bed. I burst into tears and lay in the foetal position. Shaking. Crying. The fitful sleep and pangs of anxiety had taken their toll. My partner comforted me and called the doctor for an emergency appointment. I was signed off for two weeks and referred for counselling.
There, I got a vague diagnosis. You see, I "wasn’t depressed enough" for a full diagnosis. I didn’t score highly enough to be clinically depressed or be classed as a manic depressive, but I did have symptoms of depression.
This vague diagnosis from the health service, coupled with an industry where depression would mark me as a risk or a liability, meant I kept the condition to myself. This suited my employers; when I returned to work, I was asked to tell colleagues and contacts I’d been off sick with a virus. In adland, sharing details of your mental health could come at the risk of your career – or at least its progression. Being open about depression could mean no pitching, no high-profile meetings and no promotion.
Now, I know this won’t change until we start talking about it, so I’m putting an end to my silence. Here’s what I learned.
Depression doesn’t go away, but you can manage it
Talk about how you are feeling with people who care. Read Feeling Good by David D Burns and download the app Breathe to help de-stress for a better night’s sleep. I’ve found that CBD oil (drops or tablets) helps lift the fog. If you think you might need help, talk to your doctor and insist on counselling (don’t doubt how you’re feeling).
Ask for help
Speak up when work is getting stressful. If they don’t know, they can’t do anything about it. Or if you want to get support but don’t feel ready to involve your employer, try the charity Nabs. As a bloke, it can be really hard to talk about how you’re feeling, but organisations such as Campaign Against Living Miserably and Movember literally exist to stop men from suffering in silence. Pick up the phone and start talking.
And if at any stage you feel like you’re being treated improperly because of your mental health, join a commercial union such as GMB. You may not ever need it, but it’s reassuring to know you have the legal advice should you require it.
Employers need better mental-health protocols
Each employer should have a contingency plan to get you the support you need. While this should differ based on the individual, company-wide initiatives could involve assigning additional resources to ease employees back into work after being signed off.
We should place as much emphasis on mental health as we do physical health. If you already offer an on-site GP, maybe offer an on-site therapist too. As you already have first-aiders, why not mental-health first-aiders as well? Free yoga classes and the odd mindfulness session will not cure our industry’s sign-off culture.
Medication isn’t the only solution
Don’t rely on prescribed medication to mask your feelings; try the above suggestions.
Have an experience you think should be shared? Help our industry take action by writing to [email protected]