I was 21 the first time I had a nervous breakdown at work. It was my first job out of college, working retail at a flagship shoe store in Manhattan. One task was to stand in the doorway, smile, and greet customers. Sounds easy enough, right? Usually it was, but other times, when I was going through depressive phases or masking an anxiety attack, forcing a smile felt like having teeth pulled.
I’d stand fidgeting with my name tag, quietly saying hello to customers, giving my best close-lipped smile, trying my best to look charming without breaking down. A new manager-in-training approached me, and I knew some criticism was coming. They rarely approached employees to say, “Good work.” I was right. He told me to speak louder and smile.
Tears started welling and I speed-walked downstairs to the bathroom. Slumping down to the floor, I sobbed. I cried so hard I thought I was going to vomit. Faking happiness for eight hours a day was nearly impossible, and I didn’t have the energy to pretend I was OK for a second longer. Once I’d gotten rid of most most of the tears, I went back upstairs and asked an older manager if we could talk in his office.
“Can you please tell John to stop asking me to smile? I have Major Depressive Disorder and I can’t control this fact, and some days it’s really not that simple for me. It doesn’t help that you’re paying me minimum wage and I can barely afford therapy,” I confessed. He was shocked and at a loss for words. I went on and on as if it were a therapy session. He even shed a few tears of his own. So, yeah. There’s one way to confront your mental illness at work: bottle everything up until you reach your breaking point!
The Struggle of Hiding a Mental Illness in the Workplace
Hiding a mental illness for eight hours a day is an exhausting, emotionally draining job. Fighting this internal battle while being at your day job is extra hard work. No high school or college course could prepare us or teach us the skills we’d need to stay sane at a 9-5 while struggling with something most people can’t even comprehend. There is no class that touches on disclosing a mental illness to a manager, having a panic attack in the middle of a big meeting, or crying spells on the first day in a new position.
The workforce has shifted heavily to the gig economy, and employees seem to be more disposable and replaceable than ever. Entering the workforce as a millennial is especially daunting because there’s so much bias against our generation. We feel like we need to prove ourselves now more than ever, adding on to the immense anxiety we already feel. We must perform as perfectly as possible, and on top of that, we aren’t allowed to appear weak or sad.
The expectation that we must be super-human employees begins on the job hunt. Posts by employers list a sunny temperament as a necessary qualification right alongside skills such as fluency in Adobe Photoshop and knowledge of Microsoft Excel. Personally, when I was seeking a corporate job, I found myself wary of applying for such positions.
Am I upbeat enough? Are they going to think I’m a Debbie Downer? If I’m not smiley all the time, am I a bad employee?
It’s easy to see a pattern, even with just a quick search for jobs at major digital media companies. The first post requires the potential employee to “help maintain the cheery and collaborative culture with a positive attitude.” The second employer says employees “must have positive energy,” and the third calls for someone with “a positive, curious, playful disposition.”
Let’s say you muster up the courage to apply for a position, interview, and then get the job. The anxiety piles on up, and you’ll likely imagine many worst-case-scenarios. You’ll probably have questions like, “How am I going to survive a full day at work? Should I tell my boss about my mental illness?” I spoke with two mental health professionals to get some answers.
How to Make It Through the Workday When You Have a Mental Illness
There are multiple coping tools you can use throughout the work day (ones your co-workers won’t even notice!) to help you get by. Melissa Moreno, LCSW, explains, “Mental illness affects people differently so when trying to figure out how to manage such things at work the first step would be figure out the symptoms and ways to manage them.” She continues, “Using coping skills that one can use during a meeting or from a desk may also be important, things such as deep breathing exercises, counting one’s breath, or having a picture of their family or pet on their desk. It is key to identify the symptoms that you want to manage at work and then develop a plan to help manage such symptoms.”
Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC, echos the importance of a daily plan. “I think it’s a great idea to work with my clients in developing a self-care or daily coping plan that lists strategies they can use at any part of their day. I think that having a visual reminder of this, such as a phone wallpaper background, sticky note in their cubicle or something like that, can be just what people need to cope in moments of struggle.”
On top of coping skills, it’s important to keep up with treatment plans, which may include therapy. Especially when starting a new job, it can be intimidating to ask for time off for appointments. Caraballo has experience working with millennials who struggle with this. “I’ve worked with many clients who feel caught in-between this place of wanting and recognizing they need help, but afraid of what the implications might be for work if they speak about their diagnoses or need for appropriate medical care.” He adds, “For those in corporate jobs (and others), it can be difficult to find ANY time away from the office, let alone time to practice good self-care or mental hygiene.”
While it’s scary to ask for time off, Moreno reminds us that if you’ve been a full time employee at a large company for a certain amount of time, it’s actually the law to be granted some time away from the office. She states, “The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, prohibits discrimination in hiring and firing decisions based on physical and mental disabilities and entitles people to ‘reasonable accommodations’ from their employers. In the case of mental illness some solutions may include flexible working hours, access to an additional break, and support from supervisor.”
Of course, this privilege will require you to disclose your mental illness. Caraballo realistically cautions that sharing your mental illness status, unfortunately, may not go as smoothly as you’d hope. “I think that, in certain instances, it can be quite helpful to disclose mental illnesses to an employer. If you have an understanding or knowledgeable management team, communicating that can ensure that you’re receiving appropriate flexibility and accommodations. But, sadly, this is not always the case. Many business or organizations still fall behind in promoting worker self-care in large part due to the stigma surrounding mental health issues and demand for productivity.”
Simply put, Moreno says, “Disclosure of mental health issues at work is a personal choice, and you can say as much or as little as you choose. If you need more support, being open may help you get it.” She advises, “Request a one-to-one meeting with your boss so you can sit privately where you can discuss your mental health. If you decide to have the conversation it may be important to plan out the conversation and practice what you will say. Going into the conversation with a plan can be helpful, maybe even writing some notes with important points to cover. Identifying what support you hope to gain from your employer and how it will improve your job performance is definitely important to touch upon.”
Whether or not you decide to reveal your mental illness to your employer, one thing’s for sure: you aren’t alone. I bet at least one of your coworkers is fighting a similar battle as you are. Remember that you are stronger than you think, and you have the tools to make it through the day. Even when it feels like work is a battle that will never end, keep going. You’ll be okay. And if you need support, a therapist is a great resource!