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Coping With Mental Health Disorders at Work

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Work-related stress is at an all-time high, and adults with diagnosed mental health disorders may be having a particularly hard time managing their symptoms and maintaining a well-run firm. Although articles on handling stress and burnout abound, it's crucial to make sure wellness initiatives also include those who battle mental health issues and provide a safe space for them.

Jul 14th 2022
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Mental health disorders are surprisingly common: The National Alliance on Mental Illness says 40 percent of US adults have an anxiety disorder, while over 20 million Americans have experienced a depressive episode at least once. According to Davis Behavioral Health, the five most common mental health issues in the US are dementia and anxiety, mood, psychotic, and eating disorders. And the last four are just umbrella terms: “psychotic disorders” include schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, for instance, while “anxiety disorders” includes OCD, panic disorder and PTSD.

While some of these might bring to mind people who experience homelessness and addiction or who have difficulty holding down a job, that’s not quite an accurate picture. Many people battle these disorders and are also successful professionals, just like you and me. 

It’s highly unlikely you’re aware that that’s what they’re going through. Due to stigma, the desire to keep their medical issues private, or even a simple belief that work isn’t the place to talk about mental health because it might have repercussions on your career and relationships, many people keep this information to themselves. In my 10 years as a writer and editor, for instance, I think I’ve heard maybe two or three colleagues discuss their mental health diagnoses with me and show a willingness to be open. When I talk with friends who struggle with their mental health, the consensus is frequently the same: Try not to let work find out.

Mental health and the workplace is one area where I think the generational divide between Boomers and Millennials and Gen Z is most glaring. My generation (I’m a Millennial) is one of the first to be much more open about mental health (there’s a joke going around the internet that Millennials will just tell you they see a therapist openly, whether you asked or not, haha). My parents, on the other hand, were taught not to talk about it. For a lot of older people, mental health disorders are scary, they don’t really understand them, and it’ll derail your professional career. In the worst cases, they’re even seen in a really negative and judgmental light and presented as character flaws and weaknesses rather than as legitimate medical diagnoses.

Starting in 2020, I started to notice a much more pronounced focus on wellness by companies. My own excellent employer, for example, sent out surveys asking about our stress levels as well as a small gift box that contained face masks and candles for self-care. They strove to make sure staff felt comfortable talking about mental health if they wanted and really created a judgment-free environment. And this isn’t just a one-off: According to Harvard Business Review and other well-respected publications, addressing mental health, ensuring employees stay healthy, and providing support of all kinds is starting to become the norm in the business world.

Mental health awareness, acceptance and support are things I’m passionate about, and it’s really important to me that as one of the DE&I initiative members at AccountingWEB, we practice what we preach. And since I’m the Senior Editor, I, of course, think a lot about content. A lot of articles on wellness and health focus on things like burnout or feeling overloaded by work; these are important topics, surely, but they’re not really applicable to or inclusive of people who have diagnoses like OCD, bipolar II, panic disorder, or major depression and still come to work every day and have to deal with their symptoms. So, here’s a list of coping skills for all of you out there who are working professionals struggling with these issues:

Customize Your Working Arrangement

A lot of people who are experiencing mental health symptoms experience a decrease in their ability to function during an episode. Things that should be simple, like getting up on time, taking care of yourself and your house, and just going about a regular, productive day can become impossible. If this is something you experience frequently, or you’ve continuously found that a daily commute and an office environment exacerbate your symptoms, take control and figure out what would be better for you. Accounting firm owners have a lot of options as to how they work, and there’s no need to feel pressured to conform to what others are doing. Plus, your clients will be better served and you’ll do a better job when you’re not constantly trying to manage a situation that’s not working for you.

Set Healthy Boundaries

Anybody else remember this? As a kid, my parents used to insist that if I wanted to talk to a coworker, or a manager, or anything that fell into a category similar to that, doing anything aside from calling them on the phone would be incredibly rude and somewhat cowardly. So for many years, I’d resign myself to having to have uncomfortable, unpleasant or even just difficult conversations either on the phone or in person – no other options. It exacerbated my stress levels and compounded the issue. Finally, someone pointed out to me one day that sending a text or an email isn’t being rude: It can be a helpful way to set a boundary and make communicating both more comfortable and more effective. You have the chance to review what you’ll say, and you don’t have to check the response immediately. You can choose when you do that. Consider this and other, similar boundaries that will make managing your working relationships easier.

Do What You Can, When You Can

Remember: You’ve got an additional challenge to work with that other people don’t have to deal with. And for many people with mental health issues, it’s a fact that some days are way better than others. Rather than trying to fight through a hard day and get everything done you usually do when your symptoms are easier to manage, start rolling with the punches and structuring each day so it’s workable. If you’re having a particularly tough week, for instance, set up a schedule that only includes high-priority tasks that cannot wait and includes room for downtime and self-care. If you’re apprehensive about a project and keep putting it off due to anxiety, set a specific time and day when you absolutely must tackle it. 

The pandemic hit everybody hard, and if you’ve been particularly struggling lately, keep in mind stress exacerbates mental health systems. Be gentle with yourself and implement some coping mechanisms, as well as processes that allow you to tend to your health and your work at the same time.

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