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Depression in the workplace – still a taboo?

Laura Smrekar

Partner, Head of Communications

The year of 2018 has barely even started, but I have already made my way through a decent amount of blogs. Those that truly touched me were blogs that were personal, honest and derived from experience.

For the first time, I decided to do the same myself. I will be talking about depression, a very common mental illness, which is too often still considered a taboo. I have it myself and I have had it for years – in some periods it is more present, in some less. It was only recently though, when I was feeling down for a long period of time, unable to even get myself to go to work, that I decided to share it with my colleagues. The courage I needed to do so was immense, but right after I did, the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders. I could breath again.

I am a partner in an HR firm with nearly 20 employees. In this business, everything stands on trust and relationships. Relationships that are formed are strong and based on a high degree of respect, honesty and responsibility. I realized that when we truly open ourselves up to being vulnerable, we allow these relationships to become even stronger. It’s not easy to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, but if we do not do so, it’s as if we are walking around with a mask on. This mask can protect us, of course, but it also continuously destroys us on the inside. This is exactly why I wish to use this opportunity and write this blog in order to help make this topic less of a taboo, and make sure those suffering from similar illnesses know that they are not alone in this. I also want to encourage companies to talk about mental illness and thus make sure their employees are healthy not only physically, but also mentally.

One out of five people in the workplace experience problems with mental health at some point – what does this mean for companies?

Essentially every company out there is likely to have employees that are suffering or will be suffering from mental illness at some point. And are they aware of this? When it comes to physical illness it’s easier, even if it’s one as devastating as cancer. We can see it with our own eyes. But when it comes to mental illness, there are still so many obstacles. Even those of us that have it start off by feeling some kind of shame. We’re afraid people will interpret it as if we’re crazy and suddenly incapable of anything. Perhaps the co-worker sitting next to us is suffering, but too afraid to show it. It is time we take some action. It is estimated that there is currently over 300 million people suffering with depression world-wide and the expenses of this illness cause a decrease in productivity that cost the global economy about 1 trillion US dollars.

Depression can happen to anyone, for a variety of reasons

Depression is something you struggle with internally. You slowly start to lose interest in everything and in everyone, even in those who are closest to you and in what you used to love doing. You get taken over by feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, sadness and even apathy or anger. You stop seeing a point in living. There is no point to getting out of bed. You exist, but you are not actually living. You don’t want to bother anyone with your illness and you don’t want to show you’re not okay, so you try your hardest to appear happy and satisfied.

When I came into my last depressive episode, which seemed to be much worse than any before, I tried my hardest to rationalize it. I am a perfectionist by nature and very tough on myself, but I am also very emotional – which makes for a great combination for depression. I told myself “Laura, there is nothing wrong with your life! You’re happily married, have a wonderful husband and a wonderful daughter, you are a partner in an amazing and successful firm with an incredible team. You’re going crazy, you have no reason to be unhappy!”. I used the word crazy myself and I think in some moments I also believed it. And if you think you’re going crazy, how do you speak of that out loud, to your co-workers or your boss?

Employers should take some responsibility in taking care of the mental health of their employees

Business is us, people, with all our flaws, shortcomings and advantages. In the world of humans, there is no such thing as perfection. What I am currently learning is that I need to enjoy life’s small moments and stop trying to control it all. Especially though, as a businesswoman, I find it crucial to help build working environments, that will make employees feel safe to open up about their problems they are facing. I realize this will be a great challenge.

We often talk about work-life balance, but this should regard more than just working hours and working from home – mental health is a crucial component of this conversation. It is of course not up to us employers to cure mental illness, but we can work on breaking the taboos and educating ourselves and our employees on the topic. Once we get the conversation in the workplace going, there will be less stigmatization and people will find it less frightening to speak up. There are many ways to do this, we can even organize workshops or lectures; the important thing is that employees understand this is a topic taken seriously by our company and that they will be offered support when going through something like it. We are already having happiness ambassadors to make sure our employees are feeling happy, why not have mental health ambassadors too?


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