Today marks the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Week. In line with Mental Health Foundation‘s theme of stress, I wanted to discuss something which is a source of stress for most of us: work. I will be discussing the correlation between mental health and work for me personally. There will also be advice for both employees and employers, based on my own experiences.
As I mentioned in this post, I worked in retail for eight years. It’s not a job I particularly enjoyed (in fact, I hated it sometimes) but it wasn’t all bad.
The first job I had in retail was a rollercoaster. I worked with some wonderful people who became my closest friends. It was a small company, so, cheesy as it is, they felt like a second family to me. There were a lot of challenging times during my time there, but I managed to scrape through them because of the support system I had.
However, in May 2017, I left that job to move to Aberdeen and live with my boyfriend. After a couple of months, I managed to get a job in a new place. I hoped this would be an opportunity to make new friends and feel less lonely.
It didn’t turn out like that. Truthfully, it made it worse. In April 2018, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I do believe my job was a key factor in this, but I’m honest enough to admit that there were things I could have done differently.
What could I have done?
Gone in with an open mind
I think I went in subconsciously trying to fill the place that my old workplace had left behind. It was never going to happen. I had worked there for seven years. It had taken time to build up those relationships and form those bonds. I was only just starting my new job. These were new people with different interests and it wasn’t all going to fall into place. I needed to work at it and I probably didn’t put enough effort into it.
Been more flexible
I’m not interested in going out and getting drunk. Busy places make me very anxious, so I would refuse to go. I won’t force myself into these situations so it often results in me being left out. In fairness, I could have taken it upon myself to make an alternative suggestion, but I’d let them all go out without me instead.
I didn’t tell anybody how I was feeling. I let it all pile up on top of me until I collapsed under the weight of it all. I’m guilty of this a lot in my life. My manager was a decent guy, but I still didn’t feel comfortable enough to tell him what I was feeling. I allowed it to get to a situation where it became too much, and I ended up leaving the job altogether.
What could work have done better?
Been more balanced
I’ve mentioned before that retail is a rather unrewarding job. Going to work every day, doing the same things in and out, and feeling like there was no benefit of it took its toll on me. I’m not only referring to financial benefits – it’s a thankless job, too. You can feel very unappreciated for all the effort you put in. It didn’t seem worth it. Plus, I was bored. This had been my life for eight years. That’s a long time to stick with something you don’t enjoy. Retail has never been the right fit for me, but it was the only area I had experience in. I felt like I had to stay.
Made time to talk
This applies in various ways. Firstly, even if I had felt comfortable to talk to my manager, I don’t know when we would have found the time. We were always busy, maintaining the shop floor, handling deliveries or tidying the stockroom. It didn’t ever feel like there was a good time to say “hey, I’m struggling a bit.” He always made it clear that I could talk to him if I needed to, but there never seemed to be a good time.
The other way that this is relevant is the importance of talking to other employees. I know, nobody is being paid to make friends, but the difference it makes is huge. I didn’t realise that until it was gone. Being constantly busy and barely having the chance to stop and talk meant I kept a lot of things bottled up. I do this anyway, it’s in my nature, but it felt like there weren’t opportunities to talk about how we were, or what we’d been up to. These small, seemingly insignificant, conversations help to build relationships. They’re much more important than you realise.
Allowing time to breathe
There were days when I felt completely overwhelmed. I know others felt like this, too. What would have been nice is to know that we could take a few minutes out to have a breather. Some days, especially during weekends, it felt like we had to be on the go constantly. The breaks we were given were generous but there were occasions when an additional five minutes here and there would have been great.
If you’re an employee:
I’m not advising you do what I did and quit your job without a plan. Although, perhaps somewhat controversially, I would urge you to do this if it’s a viable option. While the ideal situation would be to find something else while you’re still in your current job, sometimes, that’s difficult to do. I think the notion to stay in a job for the sake of it is highly damaging. It’s hard to find the motivation to look for a new job when you feel trapped in one you don’t like. The last thing you want to do is come home, apply for jobs and try to sell yourself when you feel completely hopeless.
Sadly, I don’t think it’s a luxury many can afford. I’m very fortunate to have a partner who told me he’d take care of things so I could leave immediately. More often than not, households are reliant on two incomes – to pay the bills, to look after their children and to just get by.
If you are not able to leave your job. here are things you can try if you find yourself in a similar situation.
Assess the situation.
If it’s a job you previously enjoyed, then assess what is different. Do your best to discuss this with your employer, if you can. Similarly, if it’s a job you’ve never enjoyed, think about why you don’t like it. Is it specific to the place or the role? For example, I hated retail as a rule. The balance of work and reward for me was virtually non-existent. Therefore, it wouldn’t matter which shop I worked in, it wouldn’t be right for me.
Try and talk to someone.
My manager was brilliant when I finally told him what had been going on with me. He was caring, considerate and supportive. There was an open offer for me to return to work, but no pressure to stay. He respected my privacy and allowed me to tell people in my own time and in my own words. I realise not everybody is going to react like that. The sad truth of the matter is a lot of people still don’t understand mental health and others just love to gossip. However, start somewhere. Try somebody close to you – maybe they will offer to help? You can always contact Mind if you would like some advice and support.
Consult your GP.
If you have an existing mental health condition or think you may have developed one, check with a professional. They may also be able to sign you off work for a few weeks which will enable you to have some much-needed space.
Think about yourself.
I constantly try and do what’s right for other people, sometimes at the expense of my own wellbeing. Even when I didn’t feel up to it, I was taking on extra shifts at work because it seemed like there was nobody else to do it. I allowed it to take over my life because I was stressing about not letting people down. When it comes to your mental health, you need to put yourself first.
Do not be ashamed.
It’s okay to say that you need extra support. One of the biggest things that held me back was admitting I wasn’t coping. It seemed ridiculous. As I’m usually a rational person, I would tell myself that people are doing far more stressful jobs than me, but this only made me feel worse. I felt embarrassed because I was struggling so much with being away from my family. I’m 27 and it is just part of becoming an adult, but it’s hard.
If you’re an employer:
Look after your staff.
To reiterate, I don’t necessarily mean financial rewards. You need to make the people who work for you feel good. Tell them they’re doing a good job. Try and find ways to do nice things for them. This isn’t about pampering employees; it’s about ensuring they know they are appreciated for the work they do. There’s no need to go overboard.
Ask if they need support.
If you notice that somebody is a little off, check in with them. See if there’s anything you can do to help. Open up the discussion about mental health. Sometimes, you need to make the first step for them to open up to you. Not everyone is going to feel comfortable approaching you to admit they’re having a hard time. They’re more than likely scared of the reaction.
Consider external factors.
You might not know what’s going on outside of work. In my case, I was very homesick. I missed my family and coming to a place where I felt like I didn’t connect with anyone made me feel more isolated. Again, that’s not entirely their fault, I know my colleagues tried their best. The addition of what turned out to be depression didn’t help – I truly believed nobody liked me, even if it wasn’t necessarily true.
Let people talk to each other.
Ultimately, your employees are human beings. They need the time to communicate and form connections. You will have a much stronger team if you do this.
Understand that people need their own time away from work.
Don’t expect people to check emails or do things in their own time unless you’re paying them appropriately to do so. When people leave work at the end of the day, they need to be able to go home and switch off. Allow them to do that.
Be adequately staffed.
Do not stretch your staff too thin. Given that there are budgets, I understand this is a difficult one to do. However, it’s something you need to assess VERY carefully. Also, if you have a small team and they’re struggling to meet the demands, it could be time to look at hiring new staff. While jobs usually involve a few different roles bundled into one, you need to be wary of putting the world on someone’s shoulders. If you have no option, then at least try to have support measures in place.
Speak to Mind if you would like more advice. My suggestions are purely from the perspective of somebody who’s been through it. Mind may be able to offer more practical advice.
Leaving retail is probably the best thing I’ve ever done. I didn’t realise the impact it was having until I left. I think this is the case for a lot of people. We spend so much of our lives at work. Doing something which makes us miserable is bound to wear us down. Yet we do not always realise how bad things become.
In an ideal world, I’d be making money from cuddling cats. I know that’s not how it works. While you may not be able to pursue something you love, you don’t have to stay in a job that makes you miserable, either. There can be a balance. It might take a little while to find it, but it’s important that you do.