Managing a Successful Career and Mental Illness

by Christina Gvaliant
Managing a successful career and mental illness

My most recent episode started in January this year, I almost didn’t notice it at first. 

I started finding it harder to get out of bed, even after 14 hours’ sleep, and felt anxious in social situations, meetings, anything that involved speaking up. It was the little things you’re not quite conscious of.

Then, the little things started growing into more than little things.

During work events, I felt an overwhelming sense of wanting to hide under a table. Once I got on the tram after a morning tea and all I could think about was self harm and suicide.

I’d go for a whole week without showering and days without eating, or stare at my computer for hours, unaware time had gone by. I binge eat. Normally I can handle the shame that comes with being obese, but with the depression it spirals into a pit of hatefulness.

I can easily consume 4,000 calories in half and hour. When I’m very stressed I binge eat at work, although it mainly happens when I’m alone. My drawer at work is full of wrappers and my bedroom is disgusting. It’s no way to live.

I know the anxiety and binge eating pass, but when I’m in them it doesn’t feel like I’ll get out. In the first months of this year, I needed a lot of support from work.

Shaping My Career

My job’s central to my identity. I’m an evaluation and research consultant and I love it. When I was younger, I thought you’ve got to get to the top, make more money. Now my goal is to do a job that gives me the flexibility to be happy.

I have commercial targets, but that’s not really the goal for me, or the only goal for my employer. My manager’s told me – I want you to be healthy and explore opportunities outside of work because I care about you. I know it makes you a better employee and it’s good for everyone.

There have been times this year I’ve had to take a mental health day. Like others would say – I’ve got a tummy bug, I’d say – I’ve got anxiety and can’t work today. I have a really trusting relationship with my managers and can be vulnerable around them. It’s much easier to take a mental health day when they’ve seen me have a panic attack.

When I was really struggling my manager took me into a meeting room. “I want to understand what the problem is,” he said. And then he reeled off list of things we could do.

  • ​I’ve started working four days a week – that was huge for me, as a 27 year old with no kids.
  • I have a later start as I find mornings difficult.
  • I have the flexibility to go to an appointment or work from home.
  • If I don’t feel like seeing anyone I can go to a quiet room for the day, or work on a weekend when no-one’s around.
  • If I need to be present but all I can do is browse the internet or stare at my screen, I can make it up another day. 
  • If I need someone to come into a meeting with me for support, that’s fine.
  • If I need to take time off, I decide on the narrative.

These strategies have really empowered me. I feel in control of my mental health at work and that’s been fundamental to my recovery. 

Changing the Culture of Work

We have a small team, about eight of us, and they’re the best bunch. When I’m quiet, one colleague checks in with me through Skype messenger. “Is this a talking day?” she’ll ask.

I now have strategies in place for dealing with the difficult times. If I need to meet with my manager I think, what’s the minimum I want to come away with, do I need to take someone in with me? And if I’m worried, I always arrange to meet a friend for coffee afterwards.

I also have someone at work I can talk to, and I manage that relationship carefully. I open up to them but they’re not my confidant or my therapist.

There have been times at work where I’ve shocked people. Recently I started taking strong medication which has side effects. If asked, I tell people that I’m taking medication for binge eating and it gives me arthritic symptoms. And sometimes I’ll tell colleagues I’m going to a psychiatrist appointment. Occasionally some flinch, but they would never say anything.

Our culture is changing, and colleagues with issues have started talking to their managers. We now have a diversity and inclusion scheme and flexible work policy, and there’s a noticeable shift from the top.

I don’t want to say I’m a pioneer, it would have been easier if someone else had been first. But the more we talk about mental health at work, the more it breaks down stigma. We need to make it acceptable to talk about everything, and be ourselves. Mental health is more than someone with depression clutching their head in their hands.

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