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Blog: Ditching the ‘workplace mask’ for a mental health-confident office

20 Jul 2017

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I loved my job in international banking. My career progressed well, regularly promoted, gaining expertise and a highly respected market reputation.

In my personal life though, I suffered recurrent moderate depression. My personal mental ill-health struggles were a very private matter, so, undisclosed at work. I kept strict personal and professional life boundaries. Work was my antidote.

Later, during a personal ‘perfect storm’, I suffered a severe depressive episode. I thought I’d manage that too. My work and career was my only success I believed, and meant everything to me. So, wearing my ‘workplace mask’, I doggedly continued working but maintaining this ‘double life’ grew tougher and increasingly exhausting.  I coped for about two years but whilst my performance, and my appearance, in the workplace was unchanged, my behaviour slowly shifted from happy and positive, to sullen, brusque, on edge, stressed. My workplace verve disintegrated, my progression stalled and career flatlined.  No-one ever asked if I was OK, picked-up or questioned my behavioural or physiological changes (non-verbal communications-NVC), or my progression changes.

Then after a routine health check, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening, stress/depression related illness. I slipped into suicidal depression. After another failed suicide attempt, I finally, secretly, visited the GP. My amazing doctor prescribed medication with counselling. Although ambivalent about counselling, I’d try anything to feel better. But what, and how much, to say at work?? Practicalities of having time off for treatment, recovery, appointments etc?? I finally, and apprehensively told my line manager. To my relief, he was very supportive, collaborating with me on what I needed/wanted, facilitating workplace adjustments to accommodate my choice to continue working with time off for appointments. He maintained communication and my privacy throughout, and liaised with HR taking the pressure off me. Being told or advised to stay at home would not have worked for me. I needed to come to work, I needed a purpose, I needed a respite and escape. I needed some semblance of normality.

With treatment, I incredibly transformed from mental ill-health to full recovery, and beyond. “Sometimes we have no choice about what happens to us, but, we do have choice about how we deal with it” was profound personal learning. I also recovered from my physical illness. I discovered hidden talents, attributes, and direction too. Alongside my career I became a counsellor, giving to others as someone gave me, a charity volunteer, and later a coach. I was revitalised and my career re-energised. I moved into investment banking, regularly headhunted, progressed into managerial and leadership roles, becoming a consistently high performing achiever and institution role model.

A success story, however, could things have been better? I believe a mental health confident workplace/environment would have encouraged my earlier disclosure, and/or line manager/colleagues to ‘see’ non-verbal communication and have confidence to appropriately intervene.Talking earlier could have prevented my deterioration, meaning my earlier return to health and full capacity. The earlier the disclosure/intervention the better, but having workplace confidence, at all levels to do so, is essential. 

Read: Sylvia's personal account on why she didn't speak up about her mental health issues at work

Watch: Sylvia's five top tips for looking after your mental health at work

Sylvia Bruce, mental health in the workplace consultant

Sylvia Bruce

Sylvia Bruce is a mental health in the workplace consultant and inspirational speaker, unafraid to share her mental ill-health to full recovery experience, and a performance with well-being coach. Sylvia left a successful investment banking and performance management career at HSBC to focus on her passion to promote individual, corporate and education facility actions to encourage mental health confidence and looking after our mental health as we do our physical health.

Whilst at HSBC, Sylvia was also mental health network Chair, champion and Business Disability SteerCo member driving the Time to Change Pledge agenda forward, masterminding innovative activities, events, regularly featuring in internal communications and representing HSBC at external events.

Mental health in the workplace

The IoD is committed to raising awareness of mental health issues in the workplace, with a particular focus on opening up the conversation for small and medium-sized businesses. We have created a hub packed full of helpful advice, best practice and useful resources, as well as shared experiences from business leaders.

Visit our mental health in the workplace hub

Get involved in the conversation  or use the hashtag

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