Fit to work

This week’s blog comes from Rachel, our Community Partnerships Manager in Somerset, who writes about what it means to be fit to work.

Vulnerability used to be a dirty word in my vocabulary, something you leave at home and certainly not something you take to work. I mean, how can you do your job when you are living through experiences in parallel to those you are supporting? This question has caused much pondering for me, sometimes it’s the source of my shame, and at other times it’s the driving force and my motivator. Am I fit for work?

It’s undeniable that working in the mental health sector attracts many who have our own lived experiences. But where does the lived experience end and the payroll start?

Sometimes it is easier for there to be a clear division between ‘illness’ and ‘health’, after all when you are unwell you have time off work, right? But for some of us balancing our mental wellbeing and recognising this division can in fact help our work.  If I take a leaf out my own book and gift you a little of my vulnerability, I may help you in understanding what it feels like to work while being ‘ill’.

Hiding my history

I started working in the mental health sector a year after being discharged from a long admission in a psychiatric hospital. This wasn’t something I was about to advertise on my CV at the time, I felt it would have only hindered my chances of scoring the job I wanted. My history wasn’t something of value, it was just something I survived and now had to move on from so I could work.

I remember vividly getting ready for that interview, making sure my eyebrows were on point that I looked sharp but approachable, and that my jacket sleeves were long enough to cover my scars. From the offset I had set the precedence that to be good at my job I had to divorce myself from my mental health to be taken seriously and to do well. On sunny days I would be the only one wearing long sleeves and I made excuses about why I felt so tired in the morning to hide that I was taking new medications, making my dreams vivid and traumatic.

I worked in the same company for many years in this way, and in truth I was getting by pretty well by boxing off my dark days to my off days. But I couldn’t get away from the utterly hollow feeling I had when I walked up the hill to work. I felt like I was leaving bits of myself behind. The persistent narrative in the wider environment was that this is what you have to do so that you can be effective in helping others. The boundaries were clear and defined, you were either well…or you weren’t. But mental health problems rarely afford such clear parameters, this wasn’t like popping an aspirin and waiting for the pain to stop.

The differentiations between well and ill in mental health are often made by people that aren’t you. And this is tough. I was scared that if I told someone that I was struggling then they would think I couldn’t do my job and potentially even worse…wasn’t SAFE to do it either. Would I be looked at as if I was vulnerable or incapable, or would I be spoken to in that slightly condescending tone that conveys forced sympathy? Ultimately it wasn’t about how I judged by own mental health: it was about how others dealt with it.

Embracing my mental health

Parity of esteem is an ever-evolving notion when embracing ‘illness’ at work as the adaptions to work are more abstract then display screen alterations or ergonomic seating. It’s about creating an environment where people feel they can say when they aren’t at their best, and not feel incapable. Talking about mental health at work helps, it normalises experiences so that others feel like they can continue the conversation in their own voice. It is not about being well enough to work, it is about being supported well enough to carry on working. Talking about your mental health at work can make you feel vulnerable, but it doesn’t have to imply that you are not capable. It’s showing yourself compassion, and modelling this to the people you work alongside, and maybe even the people you support if you work in caring professions.   

Working through the pandemic while managing my own mental health has been quite a journey over the last year. I have been mother, home schooler, university goer and now Manager. At times I have felt unbearably lonely, especially during the first lockdown when for health reasons my son had to stay at his fathers. That was tough, but I had just started my contract with Second Step, so the new service kept me focused while I took time to re celebrate to the world around me. And it was my colleagues that helped me through some pretty rubbish days, despite not meeting many of them for almost a year after I started. Being able to support people through this strange time has kept me focused on why I work in the mental health sector

Having ‘poorly head days’ doesn’t have to mean that doors are closed to you with work, but it also doesn’t mean that you have to be pressured to achieve either. But if you choose to support others while needing a little help yourself that’s entirely possible with the support of a good manager and great colleges. I definitely got lucky there.

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