‘That’ conversation with your boss
Amy blogs about disclosing her condition at work and the importance of employers being well informed.
It’s time for that conversation again.
I’ve had this conversation with several managers in the past, and I can honestly say that the responses varied as widely as you can imagine.
One manager basically forced me to resign my beloved part-time job as a youth worker, even though her predecessor had literally been my lifeline at times. One manager backed me to the ends of the earth and trusted me with more responsibility, so that I could choose my tasks when I was having a bad day. One manager’s response was, “Oh, that’s what Kerry Katona has, right?” (Sigh).
After such varied levels of support, this is the conversation I dread most when I change roles or a new manager joins my team. But if they know what’s going on from the start, I feel so much more comfortable asking for support in the bad times. I also know that the added stress of keeping it a secret and trying to appear ‘normal’ all day, every day, is bound to make things harder on the bad days, which are excruciating to begin with.
Deep Breath. Look the new manager right in the eyes. Aaaaand…..
“I have bipolar disorder.”
My manager looks back at me and, without missing a beat, says, “Thank you for telling me. How can I help?”
The biggest wave of relief floods over me. Finally, the perfect immediate response; no weird looks, no hesitation or awkward questions, no difficult silence. Just a willingness to support me at work.
After this moment, talking is much easier. I explain the basics of my diagnosis, give an abbreviated version of my history, and we talk about how some of my symptoms can affect my daily work. My short term memory is very unreliable, having been basically stripped by years of extreme mood swings and wild behaviour. My attention span varies between poor on a good day, to non-existent on my worst days.
On bad days I have trouble concentrating, and communicating with others is torture. Hypomania can mean I’m hyper-sensitive to smells, sounds and touch, making working in a busy office very challenging – especially if someone fancies ordering a fried sandwich for breakfast.
But the most helpful thing for my manager then, my manager now (a different person), and our HR team, has been Mind’s information resources for employers. I have downloaded the PDF versions and sent them links, by email; it gives them the right information to help support me, from a trusted source.
This means I can refer them to certain sections if it relates to my current difficulties, but also gives me the confidence that they have the right details, and haven’t just wildly ‘googled’ the condition (try googling ‘bipolar disorder’ and by page three of the search results, you’ll know why I don’t want my employers relying on that method!)
The biggest relief to me has been the fact that they’ve come back after reading that information, and asked how they can help.
When I’ve been too unwell to work, often for weeks at a time, they’ve known not to pressure me into returning. They know I’m open to them asking questions and that I’ll tell them if my needs change. So now, I can listen to music on headphones in the office if I’m having a hard day, as music can really help. I also moved to a desk in a ‘corner’ (well, as close as you can get in an open-plan office) where I can have a bit of privacy and block out the noisy office behind me.
And that support, that level of confidence in the people I work with, is worth so much to me, especially after the varied levels of support I’ve received in the past from management and HR. After you’ve been forced to resign because you might be ‘unstable’, the knowledge that your manager and HR team understand your condition is truly worth sending those links to Mind’s website.
I’m currently in the midst of reducing my medication, at a very busy time at work – I do pick my moments! This means that, more than usual, I have bad days and good days, and the side effects of the withdrawal are pretty scary at times. I’m ultra-sensitive to noise, touch and smells; I feel sick or suffer headaches at least two days each week; and my concentration is extremely variable, making working on complex spreadsheets extremely challenging.
But because I know that Mind have written such great information guides, and my manager has access to those any time he wants, I know I’ll get through this period of transition with minimal effect on a job I love.
I’m determined to lead as close to a normal life as possible; I don’t hide my illness at work anymore (though I also don’t shout it from the rooftops; stigma is still there in more places than you’d think) and I’m more confident and successful than ever.
A little information, made available to anyone who needs it, makes a huge difference; I definitely wouldn’t be doing my current job without Mind.
If you’d like some guidance on mental health at work, Mind have lots of useful resources. Take a look at: