Bosses, listen up. In case you need a financial reason in addition to a humanitarian one to better support your employees with a mental illness here it is. Countless days of work are lost due to anxiety and co-occurring depression each year in the U.S. to the tune of over $225 billion dollars. Yup, taking action can improve your bottom line.
Mental illness is a common condition that connects millions of us and yet remains misunderstood and cloaked in stigma. Anxiety impacts every aspect of life including employment and careers.
Anxiety sufferers often feel judged and blamed for their illness because others can’t easily see the signs of their illness and don’t appreciate the seriousness of what they are managing. Managing the symptoms is a constant daily battle that rages inside both the body and mind and decreases confidence and self-worth. It goes with you everywhere including work.
Anxiety is the most common form of mental illness in the United States afflicting over 40 million people. Many of us are living with anxiety and experience how prevalent and disabling it is. With so many of us suffering with anxiety it should be impossible for there to be a negative stigma attached to living with a mental illness, but yet there is. Disclose to a co-worker you have heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or even the flu and their response is likely to be comforting and supportive.
Friends, co-workers and family are likely to call or stop by and offer help, maybe even bring you some chicken soup. Yet when someone is suffering from a panic attack or a depressive episode people pause or even retreat. Why is mental illness treated with such a lack of compassion? It is my hope it is a lack of education and communication and not discrimination. If this is true, we can inform people and open up opportunities to talk about our mental illness.
By sharing stories of lived peer experience we can build a stronger culture of understanding and acceptance. To accomplish this there needs to be a genuine invitation for people to talk about their illness in a safe environment. The ability to ask for support without the fear of being judged or having a negative impact on one’s career is essential. The last thing an anxiety sufferer needs is to worry about others judging them for their anxiety.
I talk with employees who fear if their supervisor or colleagues find out they have a mental illness that they will be seen as less competent and less promotable. Those who did disclose share experiences of supervisors and co-workers seeming to blame them for their illness and believing it is a personal weakness that makes them less capable. This is not the case. People diagnosed with anxiety often have above average intelligence and have high levels of empathy.
It would be cruel to tell a cancer sufferer that having cancer is their fault and they need to try harder to manage it. No one blames them for their disease. I wish that was true for anxiety.
People with anxiety are fighters. These worry warriors are battling their own thoughts every day, and it is exhausting. This illness is real. Your body is in constant pain. It is difficult to sleep, causes tension headaches, back pain, neck pain, nausea, bowel issues, dizziness, trouble concentrating, chest pain, and pain in your lungs when you try to breathe.
By the time your anxious employee arrives at work they have already fought a war inside their head. They have been working to quiet all the worries in their private life as they transition to focusing on projects, deadlines, bosses, co-workers, clients, and questioning if they have the skills to be successful. This leads straight to worrying about getting fired, because they are sure this is going to happen, if not today then probably tomorrow. The constant fear of not being right, good enough, smart enough, social enough, or strong enough is ever present. All while accepting that anything that has already gone wrong or is about to is all their fault. The inner voice is telling them they are stupid, no one likes them and they are a failure before the day even starts.
One in three people will suffer from anxiety in their lifetime. Look around your office or work site. If it isn’t you, it’s someone you can see from where you are sitting. Knowing this, less judgment and a simple how are you doing or a word of appreciation or encouragement goes a long way. When a co-worker has a cold or headache or a doctor’s appointment, often co-workers and supervisors are aware. Why is it so different with a mental illness?
If you are a business owner or a supervisor it is beneficial for your bottom line, quality and staff retention to promote a culture of acceptance and support. As a business community there is much we can do. There are excellent training materials and courses on Mental Health First Aid that can be offered to employees and supervisors.
If you are the employee suffering from anxiety at work, I respect and appreciate the resiliency and bravery you bring to work every day.
On the days you are struggling beyond what seems manageable here are a few suggestions to cope. Try a few until you find one or a combination that works for you.
Change something: When the moment strikes and you feel overwhelmed, get up and walk around. Go to a different room or office. Talk a short walk. Change your surrounding and you can change your thoughts.
Focus on your purpose: Take a minute and think about why you work where you do. Think about the reasons you are there and how your contributions make a positive difference. Everything from earning a paycheck to supporting yourself or your family, to supporting your company to be successful, to providing a needed service or product. You are contributing to the world and it matters. You matter.
Write it down: If you are stressed or upset about something or someone write about it in a journal. Maybe you are too anxious to tell the person but by writing down what you want to say or would say you can let it go.
Drink Water: Get up and get a drink of water and a healthy snack. Your physical health is connected to your mental health.
Color: Take a break and color for 10 minutes. There are great adult coloring books. This activity helps to focus your thoughts on a specific task and gives you a chance to tap into a creative activity.
If your anxiety is persistent and affecting your daily activities, consider contacting your employers Employee Assistant Program (EAP) if they offer one. They can connect you to a support group, therapist or psychiatrist.
In life nothing is more important than your mental and physical health. Without your health you can’t pursue your dreams and goals. The people in my life who have anxiety are successful musicians, teachers, doctors, health care workers and business managers. You are in good company.