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Where mental health in the workplace can go wrong

I want to share my personal story of where mental health in the workplace can go wrong.

It’s the reason I’m so passionate about mental health, specifically at work. 

I’ll also highlight where I think things went wrong, and what could have been done differently. 

Some were definitely larger cultural issues, but there were definitely smaller things that, if in place, may have prevented a lot of what I went through.

? My experience of mental health in the workplace ?

I was working in a recruitment company within a VC fund, so I had the double pressure of the VC & recruitment worlds.

The truth is, I was already struggling with my mental health before I’d joined the company, but up until this point, I’d managed to keep it a secret. 

I was able to put on an incredibly happy, “well-together” mask during the interview and my first 3 months in the role.

600 people applied, and they only made offers to 21 of us, all graduates.

I was the youngest of the lot, and after our two-week training, I won “Best Graduate“.

I made the first sale of the group.

At the end of our first 3 months, I had the highest billing figures. 

Everyone around me was forgiven for thinking I was “smashing it”. That was the mask I’d put on for the world to see.

But, I really started to struggle towards the end of those 3 months, and I felt I needed to tell someone at work. 

I opened up to our Graduate Trainer with only the bare bones of what was happening, and she was nothing but supportive. But, she told me I needed to tell my boss too.

It took me a week to work up the courage to do it, but the conversation went fine. He even told me how he’d been through a similar thing.

Great, I thought, he’ll totally understand what I’m going through.

But, it was only a week later that one of my colleagues sent me a photo of an email that he’d, for some reason, printed out and left lying on his desk. 

The first line of the email read “I know George is having a few issues, but right now I couldn’t give a flying fuck about it.”

I quit the next day. 

He shouldn’t have said what he’d said but I’ll be honest, my figures had slipped in month four and he had his business to think about. 

But, I’d had the highest sales figures the quarter before, the first quarter on the job. Putting aside the moral element for a second, while my figures had dipped, my boss had just lost one of his best performers. 

I do believe that if I’d been looked after better, I’d have stayed on for a while, ultimately making my boss and his business more money. 

But, with no benefits in place, no real support structure and a pretty questionable workplace culture, I quit.

People often ask “well, what’s the ROI of investing in mental health?”

But, what’s the negative ROI of not investing in mental health?

In my boss’ case, it was incredibly costly in terms of the wasted costs of training & onboarding, needing to source a replacement hire, the loss of revenue from one of his top performers and the fact that I became an immediate detractor of both his company and the VC fund. 

And, of course, morally, I was treated badly. It left me in a pretty dark place at a time when I was already struggling. One of the first people I’d opened up to, and the whole thing blew up right in my face.

? What have I learned? ?

Reflecting on the whole episode knowing what I know now, here’s where I think things went wrong:

Wearing two hats ??

As much as I want a world where employees feel comfortable and safe enough to share how they’re doing with their bosses, I know that not all bosses can handle this. 

My boss couldn’t wear both the personal and professional hats, and it meant that he mismanaged me and what I was going through.

He told me that the way to get through my issues was to work harder because that’s what he did when he was struggling.

Looking back – that wasn’t the advice that was right for me, it was the advice that he wanted me to hear because he was thinking about his business. 

If someone’s judgment is going to be clouded when trying to support someone with their mental health, particularly mental health issues, then they are not the right person to be giving this support. 

No external or impartial space to use ?

I had no impartial space to use. Everything was linked back to the business, which meant I couldn’t be as open and as honest as I needed to be.

Therefore, both my boss and my graduate trainer got a highly trimmed version of my experience.

It meant I felt a little incomplete with what I’d shared and that they didn’t know the full circumstances, and so couldn’t offer the necessary support.

Confidentiality wasn’t maintained ❌

I wanted to tell my graduate trainer and her alone. Within two weeks, my boss knew, as did two of my colleagues. 

I gave zero permission for my colleagues to be told, and confidentiality had been breached on a massive scale. 

My boss said that he needed to tell one of my colleagues, but again, this shows me the need for a separate, impartial space that is free of the business. 

It should have been my story to tell, and yet that decision was taken out of my hands because of business decisions and a lapse in judgement. 

No flexible working policies ?

There was no working-from-home policy, there was no mental health sick day policy, there were raised eyebrows at appointments during the working day, and eyebrows were raised even further if employees didn’t stay later than our contracted time (unpaid).

It became increasingly hard to arrange doctor’s appointments and I had to take a couple of days off and lie about the reason to get to therapy. 

A culture that isn’t supportive of someone’s mental health = a culture where mental health becomes a secret. 
I know nothing was done maliciously, but there were still errors made, and it was incredibly costly, both in terms of my health, and in terms of the business. 

These stories are commonplace, and I still hear them often when chatting to people. 

So that’s why mental health in the workplace matters to me ?