Coming out of the mental health closet at work – when, how and why

After suffering with his mental health in silence, Mark Simmonds details the importance of ‘coming out’ of the mental health closet at work.

After working in a high-pressure job for several years, Mark Simmonds suffered from a mental health breakdown and subsequent suicide attempt. His book Breakdown and Repair documents his recovery, and he hopes that his story can encourage others to put their own mental health first, and most importantly – talk about mental health at work.

Mark’s Story

I suffer from stress. When I was 39 years old, I came out of the mental health closet. About six months too late. By the time I emerged, my stress levels were so high they had already morphed into a condition called agitated depression. This then led to a dramatic mental breakdown, 4 months off work, culminating in an attempt on my own life when I threw myself in front of a 10-ton truck.

So, before we try and address how to come out of the mental health closet at work, and why it’s so important, we must explore when it’s best to do so.

When to come out?

In my case, the stress I was feeling spanned a period of about 6 months. It was a bit like Chinese Water Torture. You start off not feeling very much pain. Little things begin to irritate and apply pressure in different places. Drip… Nothing significant, nothing too painful, but persistent, nonetheless. Drip… drip… Soldier on, this will pass. Pressure builds, bit by bit. Drip… drip… drip… Things become more and more uncomfortable. You now feel trapped and slightly claustrophobic. Drip… drip… drip… drip… More pressure. Then one day, without warning, the flood gates open. Chinese water torture is an effective method for inflicting maximum suffering because its point of focus is the brain.

In hindsight, I now realise there were clear warning signs. Firstly, I wasn’t really enjoying what I was doing. I saw entrepreneurship less as an exciting challenge and more as a painful burden. Secondly, I was becoming more and more serious and introspective with every passing day. Joking less, laughing less. Thirdly, my sleep patterns were becoming increasingly disrupted. And fourthly, I was losing the ability to make fairly straightforward decisions at work as I became “infected” with hesitation and procrastination.

So, I think the answer to the question “when to come out?” is probably to do it the point at which your behaviours, thoughts and feelings are all beginning to head in the wrong direction at the same time. And if you can’t see the wood from the trees, then make sure that your nearest and dearest is briefed to step in before it’s too late and call time.

How to come out?

The most important person to confess to is yourself. Unless you do that, the wheels of recovery will not start turning. Once you have admitted you have a problem, you must confide in a close friend or family member and the sensible thing to do next is to seek medical advice. It may be a temporary blip that medication or talking therapies can contain. But if the source of your problem is, for example, the stress you are feeling at work and this shows no sign of abating anytime soon, then talking to your boss sooner rather than later is a priority. Once this happens, they have a duty of care to look after your own best interests. Nothing is more important than the protection of your ongoing mental health, including the pressure your absence might have on the business. A responsible boss should do everything possible to ensure that you are getting the medical help you need, and in the short term, they must do everything possible to reduce the stress you are feeling. If this means taking a week or two off, then so be it.

Managing your return back into the workplace after a period of sick leave is equally important. A mental illness, like stress, is not straightforward. You are unlikely to return to work fixed, ready and raring to go. Your illness may well have been a blip, for example an attack of stress caused by an unusually busy patch. But it might also be the result of a more fundamental problem like the inability to perform well under constant pressure or simply being in the wrong kind of job. So, re-entry into the workplace should be treated in the same way as a deep-sea diver returning to the surface. A number of staged decompression stops are required to ensure that you re-integrate safely and that you don’t suffer from the equivalent of DCS, commonly known as ‘the bends’.

Isolating the root problem is not always easy, so it is incumbent on the company to act with due diligence in order to make the correct diagnosis and to take appropriate action in conjunction with the sufferer.

Why come out of the closet?

There are 4 reasons why it is imperative for mental health sufferers to come out of the closet at work:

  1. It is your right. If someone broke their leg badly and was unable to move for two months, the conversation with their company would be a straightforward one. No questions would be asked and there would be no hesitation in giving that person the time required to recover. It should be no different with mental health. You are ill, you need treatment and you need time to recover. Period.
  2. Coming out of the closet sooner rather than later is good for everyone in the short term, particularly the sufferer. The quicker the bush fire is extinguished, the less likely that it will develop into an uncontrollable forest fire, and the less permanent damage there will be all round.
  3. It is also good for everybody in the long term. Let’s assume that the person is suffering because they have found themselves in the wrong job, a square peg in a round hole. The sooner the person comes to realise that the source of their pain is the job they are in, the quicker they will be able to find something more suitable and less stressful.
  4. It’s just good for society. The more people in business that are prepared to come out of the closet, in particular, those people in senior management positions, the more likely it is that others around them will feel comfortable making the same move. Back in 2011, when Antonio Horta Osorio, the Lloyds CEO went public about his own work-related mental health struggles, it was like a breath of fresh air. When the most senior person in the company comes clean, it effectively gives every single employee permission to do the same.

Stigma around mental health still exists in the workplace. Research carried out by the Priory Group confirms that 71% of people would worry about telling their boss if they had a mental health problem. And one in six British workers will experience mental ill health at some point in their career. Those statistics are worrying.

If we are going to get the figures moving in the right direction, we need to be as clear as possible why coming out is a better option than staying in. Employees will only come out of their closets if they are stepping into a room which is both warm and welcoming.

Mark Simmonds, is a creativity, insight and innovation expert. Increasing career pressure led to a nervous breakdown aged 45. He was unable to work for four months and attempted suicide – something he discusses in his new book Breakdown and Repair.

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