Seeing the ‘bright side’ of mental health issues in the workplace

Mental health sufferers can be high achievers in the workplace, and Procurement Marketplace Founder and CEO Amy-Renee Hovorka is one of them

Amy-Renee Hovorka, CEO and Founder at Procurement Marketplace, a procurement solutions provider, has and continues to battle mental health issues in her entrepreneurial career. Here, she speaks with DiversityQ about her inspirational story of resilience, including what employers can learn about mental health inclusion.

Research shows that high achievers can be more likely to have mental health conditions like bipolar. Is this something that’s discussed enough in the workplace?

Research shows that high achievers are more likely to have a mental illness, but there is true beauty in having a mental illness once you learn how to harness the gift you are given. Psychoeffective and bipolar high-performance individuals cannot help the fact that their minds work differently and are very often on hyperdrive. They can’t help that their brain is coming up with new ways of working and better approaches to a process, client or methodology.

I was marked as a troublemaker while growing up and working, particularly at school or university, because I couldn’t help seeing things differently and contributing what I saw. I can draw connections in disparate information and structure it in a way no one has thought of before, which is great for my start-up organisation, but in a large corporation or Government where I worked, it was fraught with frustration and struggle.

I would often work myself out of a job description within six months of being in the job. This is incredibly frustrating for a high achiever, as you never really know what you are doing or settle down. It is just this constant flow of manic activity followed by depression and a feeling of guilt that you can’t keep performing at the same level consistently until the next idea comes, followed by manic activity again.

I don’t think workplace mental health is discussed enough, let alone understood thoroughly. I am not saying that organisations should excuse bad behaviour or poor emotional intelligence but recognise the ebbs and flows that a person who is a high achiever might go through. Support the person by taking the idea forward or implementing it in the business. One of the first initiatives I developed at 23 for the Government was a baton programme, whereby the person with the brilliant idea would pass it to the next person who could implement it, and the entire relay race would be recognised for the innovation and deployment.

Considering the business pressures managers, leadership, and business owners face, are people in these positions getting enough mental health support compared to the wider workforce?

I would say there is still a dominant macho culture present that you must be made of steel to get to that position and maintain it. I would say that it is starting to shift slightly, which is why I think now is the right time to discuss real mental health issues and the required support.

First is understanding that just because an employee works at a certain rate for some time doesn’t mean you can establish KPIs around performing at that level all the time. Some workplaces have employee assistance programmes which are beneficial to varying degrees.

I think it is time to remove the stigma around mental illness and start having open, honest conversations about how you feel in a situation. One important note is during my psychotic episode, I was not suicidal in terms of wanting to end my life, but I was committing career suicide. I deleted all my LinkedIn contacts and account, deleted all my files and records from work, threw out my awards and deleted the source code from my first start-up company, Innovation-Firebug. I was trying to kill everything good about myself, and my career and success were the targets.

You are open about the fact you take a variety of medications to help manage your mental health. Do you think management needs to be made more aware of the side-effects of such medicines (such as tiredness etc.) so they can be a) more supportive of these people and b) understand that they might need some adjustments to work in a way that suits them?

I’m very open about my medications as I am pro-medication now, although I was against taking any medication when first diagnosed.

Yes, the medications have side effects which eventually level out or might reveal additional next-level issues to resolve. I take antipsychotics, antidepressants and a mild stimulant for ADHD. The combination and balance of the medications mean I have very few side effects, maybe a bit of weight gain but nothing too drastic.

Initially, before I was on the mild stimulant for ADHD, as that was only diagnosed this year, I used to yawn my way through the day. Every day was such a struggle, concentration was strained at best, and I made constant silly little mistakes. Rather than just thinking it was a side effect of my medication, I spoke to my psychiatrist, and we discussed that it was symptoms of adult ADHD, which presents differently in adults compared to children.

The medications have some side effects, but they might also reveal another underlying issue that was initially ignored. Regular psychiatric visits and open and transparent conversations about what is happening are important.

COVID-19 is the best thing that could have happened in terms of opening the discussion about mental health and releasing there are different ways of working which are more productive. Working from home enables you to pace your work to the times when you are the most productive and take breaks when you are least productive.

I still have a guilt complex that shifts into overdrive when not working, and I should be working. If workplaces are cognizant of the ebb and flow of work productivity in a mentally ill and medicated person, then this guilt will dissipate, and the person will be able to manage their energy levels better.

Has leading an entrepreneurial life been more comfortable for you in managing your mental health the way you want/need to?

I must manage my energy levels and stress levels very closely. If I’m getting too stressed and my coping abilities are going down, I feel empowered to act, which might include sleeping in till 10 am as I don’t have any meetings till the afternoon.

If I don’t manage my stress and energy levels, I could easily slip back into psychosis. My partner had the delight of seeing my psychotic state in December 2021 when I was exceptionally stressed and managing over 20 procurement projects by myself.

They say psychosis is a disconnect from reality, and this is true, but it is a slow progression of a disconnect. For example, supportive voices start coming in that I will be ok and that I am doing fine, then counter voices start arguing with the supportive voices, with a less than favourable message. This continues till you find yourself staring at walls again, and you try to have a teleconference with the voices in your head, stating that they don’t need to hurt you again.

So yes, managing energy and stress levels is important as this psychotic state is not a creative zone but a waste of energy. If it isn’t voices that one hears and they are bipolar instead, not being able to pace down when in a lull could be near-catastrophic on their health; they will start getting sick, unable to recover from a simple cold that was going around the office. Very often, sick days are a measure of employee engagement. However, this is an incorrect measure as they may be fully engaged and highly productive in the peak of mania but slip into body and energetic depression when the mania is over.

Can you explain how contacting the disability employment agency, NOVA, and subsequently working with Zimmer Biomet turned your life around?

After my psychotic break in March 2018 and the second episode in October 2018, I didn’t work for three years. So when I started to feel like I could get out of bed and stay up most of the day, I knew I was ready to start working again.

My mental state at that time was extremely anxious. I had so much anxiety and low confidence in myself and my abilities. I still wasn’t driving because I didn’t trust myself to be in charge of a vehicle. Trusting myself was a big one. I lost all confidence and trust in myself because I couldn’t trust what I was hearing, seeing or sensing.

When I contacted NOVA, I had to fill in the submission forms twice, as I first filled them in hiding my disability and making out everything was fine. Then my godmother reviewed the forms and said this wasn’t my capability at the moment but my desired capability. NOVA was fantastic, very supportive and encouraging.

The whole NOVA process was very smooth, although it took a while to move through the stages and for NOVA to find the right job for me. I took the approach of whatever they offered me, I would just say yes to, as I believed they knew better and I was working in jobs I hadn’t done before. So when NOVA mentioned Zimmer Biomet, of course, I said yes. I undertook a Zoom interview with Michael Schaffler, the Vice President of Information Technology and Innovation. I was so nervous, but Michael made me feel comfortable and was, in essence, pitching the job to me rather than drilling me with interview questions.

Zimmer Biomet and Michael Schaffler were amazing. Michael is an incredible leader. He was not just supportive but exceptionally encouraging too. He said in the first meeting that his objective was for me to use this job as a springboard and get back to my ambitious self.
The job was like starting over again.

Psych ward doctors told you you’d never work again, but you have clearly and very successfully overcome these doubts. Is doubt and limiting thoughts about people with protected characteristics (whether they have mental health disabilities, disabilities, or other things) one of the biggest barriers to a more inclusive workforce?

Actually, the psych ward doctors told my parents that they believed I would never work again. My family didn’t tell me this fact until after I was working again in my own operation, and was remarkably better. They told me that the doctors said this and that they were putting their wills in place to ensure I would be cared for. My parents did all of this on the quiet and never told me any of this. They just kept giving me space and motivating me to work again.

Doubts and preconceived notions are the biggest barriers to a more inclusive workplace. This is why it is important to start having open conversations about mental disorders, illnesses and disabilities. I like what NOVA says; they focus on the ability part, not the disability.

You say Procurement Marketplace is a huge achievement for your mental health journey. What do you mean by that? Have you been able to use your challenges as strengths?

Procurement Marketplace is the culmination of all my ideas and creativity into a tangible
platform. Whilst we are yet to make the Procurement Marketplace itself a success. It is a
raving success that I have been able to distil all these ideas into a platform.

I mentioned that through the journey of psychosis, the year and a half prolonged psychotic episode and the resultant fear and anxiety I was left with, I stopped trusting myself, my senses and my intuition. To create something from your mind and back yourself with over $100K investment means you must believe in yourself and trust your intuition enough that you believe this platform you are creating will be a success. It is scary and risky what I have done.

Having the right combination of medications to support my psychology so I am functional and have the confidence, which has been gradually built up to a crescendo, was essential. This is a huge achievement. I have been able to funnel this creativity into building a global marketplace for finding talented professionals in the procurement profession.

The platform has been built beautifully, with over 157,000 categories organised into 26 industries with pictures for every category. Our why is that I see the world operating differently, more structured, fair and beautiful.

Should organisations encourage an open environment where staff can vocalise their mental health issues?

A resounding yes. It is time to start having conversations about mental health in the
. This could take place individually with your management on a personal level or
openly so the workplace can start to share their understanding that sometimes you may
not feel your best, and that is ok.

A workplace hires a person for their good days and not-so-good days. If they understand that this comes in waves of productivity and can share empathy for that, it will relieve the individual’s anxiety and guilt of not feeling good and allow them to just flow with the wave. A highly productive wave is just around the corner and will probably coincide with a big deliverable.

Workplaces can start having the conversation about their understanding of different mental
health issues, which might include ADHD, Bipolar, and Schizophrenia. Have those conversations about the different conditions people can have and vocalise that they are ok to have them.

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