My line manager has raised me from a newborn, guileless graduate to a fully fledged professional through her tolerance, patience, challenge and high expectations; I am, she says, her “little protege”.
She believes in me more than I have ever believed in myself. So you can imagine the difficulty I had when it came to having to disclose my mental health condition.
From the age of 16, the dark cloud of depression and anxiety has hung over my head. When it rains particularly hard, so to speak, I lose the ability to function; every small task seems insurmountable and, when the downpour is torrential, I spend days in bed with leaden veins and suicidal thoughts.
After seven years of living with mental health problems and receiving consistent counselling, I know when things are getting bad and when a storm is brewing.
However, when I landed a place on the charity graduate scheme I moved to London, where I had no counsellor. Taking up my first job and being a long way from family and friends began to take its toll earlier this year. The usual signs started to present themselves over the course of a few weeks and then, out of the blue, I woke up one Wednesday morning unable to get out bed.
I mustered the strength to text my manager with a feeble excuse to take a sick day. My depression was back with a vengeance, preventing me from functioning. A few hours later, the reality which I had been trying to ignore sunk in.
I had experienced the consequences of not sharing what I was going through many a time, and was aware of the danger this presented. It was time to tell people again, time to disclose my mental health condition.
Despite our fantastic relationship, I feared that my line manager’s belief in me would falter; that she would stop pushing me and start treading on eggshells; and that I’d fall from the pedestal where she’d so clearly put me. Our relationship, our dynamic was perfect the way it was and I didn’t want anything to change.
The following week, I finally mustered the courage to put half an hour in her diary. I had a well structured, comprehensive speech prepared to ensure our conversation was smooth and productive. I convinced myself I could get her to see it as not a big deal, and ensure her opinion of me wouldn’t change. She would remain unfazed, but understanding if, perhaps, I had an off-day.
Needless to say our conversation didn’t go as planned. I trembled with nerves and tears started in both my eyes and hers as I proceeded to tell her my story. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it certainly didn’t come out as the eloquent monologue I’d had in mind.
Her immediate reaction was raw and genuine and we both fumbled for reassuring words. Once we’d both calmed down, we agreed to meet again the following day. She would go away and check organisational policy and, although this bit went unsaid, get her head around it before coming back with a plan. Feeling drained but as though a huge weight had been lifted, I returned to my desk.
The following day, the fierce woman I had come to know was back with a vengeance. She assured me I was not obliged to inform HR (which has no wellbeing programme aside from a helpline phone number), nor anybody else within the organisation, but that we should put a robust system in place to ensure there was total transparency between us with regards to my mental health and any allowances she might grant me. It was just what I wanted to hear.
We set up a series of fortnightly, 30 minute one-to-ones dedicated to discussing how I was doing. She would take notes and document them in our secret shared folder. In case she backtracked on anything we had agreed, such as leaving to have doctor appointments or working from home more regularly, I had evidence of her promises.
We also established what she, coyly, described as a code word so I was able to notify her if a situation or piece of work was overwhelming me and I needed to duck out.
I cannot sugarcoat the fact that the actual moment of disclosure was terrifying; I have never felt so vulnerable. However, since that day my relationship with both my line manager and my work has only improved. I don’t worry about having an off-day or expressing that I feel under pressure.
Aside from the fact that I know I have a safety net for when I need it, not much has changed. My experience of disclosing my mental health condition was entirely positive. But, I don’t underestimate for a second that this was primarily due to the way my line manager handled it.
The question I find myself asking now is whether an employee’s experience of disclosure should depend on their line manager’s disposition? There should be more comprehensive wellbeing programmes in place. My manager had to create her own system to handle the situation professionally. I was lucky – but I fear many others are not.