Living with a mental illness as a working professional

9 ways to cope with mental health challenges in the workplace

Coping with mental health issues in the workplace. (Pixabay)

SAN ANTONIOFind more tips and news coverage on our Mental Wellness page.

Are you familiar with this scenario? You’ve been lying in bed all night tossing and turning, dealing with intrusive thoughts, and spinning scenarios in your head that probably won’t come to fruition. Then, just as you finally get a moment of respite, your alarm goes off. It’s time to go to work, but you have this overwhelming sense that you should just stay in bed and ignore the day.

Yeah, me too. As someone who has lived with a mental illness most of my life, this is exactly what my mornings look like. And why don’t we add in a debilitating sense of anxiety and fear with sometimes no rhyme or reason?

I know I’m not alone, though. One in five people in the United States over the age of 18 has a mental illness. And 71 percent of adults reported at least one symptom of stress, which includes headaches or feeling overwhelmed or anxious.

Those of us with mental illnesses must learn ways to cope with our challenges so we can function in society. This particularly becomes a challenge in the workplace, where people may not feel as comfortable as they do in their private lives.

After spending most of my life living with an anxiety disorder, I have learned tools that help me not only exist in this world but also thrive in this world. It hasn’t been an easy road though. There were years of heartache and fear, as well as trial and error before I learned what helped me. I knew that my road to a successful career while living with a mental illness would impact me, and it has. It has been challenging, but also beautiful as I’ve grown to accept myself, with my constant companion anxiety and all.

In the early days of my career, mental health and mental illness were never discussed. I was ashamed and fearful that someone would find out about me, and I would get “in trouble” or fired because of my mental health challenges. These feelings lead me to overcompensate and never really feel comfortable in my job.

From the outside, my overcompensation and fear made me look like I was the most thoughtful, hardworking, and eager person in the room. But on the inside, I felt insecure, overwhelmed, and incompetent. This disconnect of who I was on the outside versus the inside led to many years of me struggling to make it through a workday because of my endless anxiety.

And what do you think happened? I burned out. It was hard to keep up being “the perfect employee” that I wowed them with at the beginning of a new job. When that facade fell, intrusive thoughts and panic attacks would creep in. This went on for years.

Even though I was successful in my career and people would say I was “working my way up,” I continued to feel that this working thing was harder for me than I saw my peers experiencing. What was I doing wrong or differently? The answer was that I was doing nothing wrong. I just was living and existing each day with a mental illness – a mental illness that was a dirty secret I didn’t share with the world.

Now we are two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and much of the workforce (about 63 percent of Americans) have experienced, or know someone who has experienced, a mental health challenge. The conversations around mental health are slowly changing. With us spending most of our waking hours at work, employers are recognizing that they need to accommodate the mental wellness of their employees so that they stay healthy and engaged. This change in workplace culture is very exciting to someone like me.

In a future article, I want to dive deeper into how workplaces can support mental health and wellness. But before we have that conversation, I’d like to share with you, from my personal experience, what it is like being inside the mind of a working professional who lives with a mental illness.

Here are some insights from my workplace experiences and how I have learned to cope with my mental health challenges in the workplace:

  1. I often must remind myself that everyone has bad days and challenges at work. No one is immune to this, and I am not alone in feeling upset about bad days.
  2. I recognize that my anxiety kicks in when I feel overwhelmed. I have to read my body cues and take a break when I feel anxiety start to impede my work. Sometimes this happens while I am in a meeting or on a Zoom call, and I now feel comfortable asking to take a moment for myself.
  3. At the beginning and end of my workday, I take a self-inventory with how I am feeling and put those feelings in two buckets: What I can control and what I can’t control. This helps me know what to tackle and what to let go of.
  4. If it has been a challenging day, I TRY (yes, sometimes not successfully) to leave the negative thoughts and anxiety until the next day when I can have a fresh perspective.
  5. I challenge myself every day to find five positive things that have occurred that day and write them down. They must be different things every day.
  6. I have no shame or guilt in taking a mental health day, everyone needs one.
  7. I find one person at work with whom I can be vulnerable and share my challenges without judgment. This also could be a friend outside of work, but I like to feel that I have someone in the workplace who supports me and understands my challenges.
  8. I tend to blame myself for anything that goes “wrong” at work, which is defeating and not productive for me. The best lesson I learned is to find a solution to the challenge without blame or judgment. If there is no solution, I try my best to let it go because it is not in my control.
  9. I work hard to make mental health and wellness a topic of conversation with people at work and out in the community so that we can all see that mental health is important and part of everyone’s lives.

Speaking and writing about my mental illness over the past few years has been life-changing for me. I now feel more authentic in my work life and my private life. I no longer feel shame about who I am or worry about keeping my mental health challenges a secret. While making the decision to be more open about my mental health challenges wasn’t so I could improve my work life, it has been an added bonus and freed me to focus more on my work.

If you or someone you know has mental health challenges that need to be addressed, there are many resources available. Please see this list for resources. You are not alone and there is help.

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About the Author:

Talli Dolge is the CEO of the Mobile Mental Wellness Collaborative and Senior Vice President of School and Community Partnerships for Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. She is a very visible and vocal advocate for mental health awareness and programs in the San Antonio community and is involved in similar activities on a national scale.