EMPATHY AND KINDNESS IN our WORKPLACEs priceless: WHAT WORKING WITH STIGMA FREE LEADERSHIP LOOKS LIKE when you have undiagnosed major depression, anxiety, add and an eating disorderRead Now
We have an advocacy campaign running to eliminate stigma in the workplace and create cultures based on kindness and empathy, and have published a number of blog posts speaking directly to our team's lived experience with workplace stigma and the negative impact it has on their lives (such as being fired after CEO finds out our India Chair has bipolar disorder and a suicide attempt after our US Chair is laid off whilst in throes of major depressive episode.)
This is a different story however - one based on working in a stigma-free environment with my lived experience, mental (read physical) illness and an eating disorder.
What I was up against: undiagnosed inattentive ADD, social anxiety, major depression, and an eating disorder
I was working for a large building corporation that had umbrella companies such as telecommunications and facilities management. While I had a direct manager, I also had the Chief Operations Officer who managed me (and the entire company).
At the time I was living with undiagnosed inattentive ADD, generalised and social anxiety and major depression. I was also living with an eating disorder for which I needed intense treatment. While I was seeing a psychiatrist during this time, he diagnosed me with depression. That was all.
Little did I know the depression was slightly more than just your everyday depression. Major depression sucks but it would take another five years before I was formally diagnosed with this.
My bosses put my wellbeing first when I seek treatment for my eating disorder even thou pain in the ass for my co-workers.
After working in the Business Centre of this company I got a promotion and moved into the Telecommunications office. It was an all male office except for me. I was the only female.
At first I was my normal self - quiet because I was anxious and trying to find my feet in this different part of the company. Once I felt comfortable and opened up, the boys I worked with became more like brothers than coworkers. We had a lot of fun and laughter.
It was during this time that I needed to seek treatment for an eating disorder. This involved missing every Friday morning and having a two-hour lunch break once a week so I could go to a shopping centre and have lunch there with my therapist as my biggest phobia was eating in front of people.
This is where the stigma free workplace and management comes into things.
Not only did my boss in the telecommunications department support me during this time, but the Chief Operations Officer did too as he had to approve it all. I know it was a pain in the ass for my coworkers but I needed to do this for myself.
You have no idea how grateful I was to have the manager I had in telecommunications and the Chief Operations Officer be so supportive of what I had to do.
when you google "cats in tights" due to your inattentive add and anxiety, thing start to fall apart. Yet, I was Supported by management once again.
I was working with undiagnosed mental illnesses at the time but what really impacted me on a daily basis was my inattentive ADD and anxiety.
In a meeting with my COO, he said my performance was like a rollercoaster, that went up then went down again, then up then down. I couldn’t focus on the task at hand and know I would have been the employee they knew I could be if I had been diagnosed and medicated for ADD.
My COO took hits for me as well - my performance came into question with the Directors and upper management. I know that he guarded me and shielded me from being fired or disciplined for my work performance.
I tried so hard during my time in the telecommunications department, but when you can’t focus and end up googling cats in tights due to your inattentiveness, things start to fall apart.
I was moved to the facilities management division probably in the hope my work performance would improve.
after making alcohol my best friend, I let that friendship end and elected to resign. But through all this, they never gave up on me.
My work did not improve. I was so anxious all the time. Almost every day my friend and I went to the pub at lunchtime so I could have a beer to calm myself down.
Alcohol became my best friend during this time because it masked all my emotions and I didn’t need to think about my underlying anxieties.
While most people would be fired for this, the company knew something wasn’t right with me. Every Christmas party I would get hideously drunk and black out, not being able to remember the night before. We had an amazing team of people at this building corporation and when I drank I embarrassed every single person I worked with.
Sure, I laugh about certain things now, but the reason for my drinking was to hide my mental and emotional pain.
I ended up handing in my resignation from the company after five and a half years to pursue real estate, as my family were moving back to Perth and I wanted to stay living in Melbourne.
Creating a stigma-free workplace isn't rocket science. If i didn't get the support I did from leadership, I don't know where I would be today.
Creating a stigma free workplace isn’t rocket science or hard. This company did it for me so willingly and never ever questioned what I needed to do. They were there to support me and they went above and beyond to do this. There were no questions asked. It was just what I told them I needed to do and they were amazingly understanding.
I think on the day I resigned everyone breathed a sigh of relief. I couldn’t continue working there the way I was. They perhaps knew it before I did. But I realized I needed to pause and seek more intensive treatment.
I still have relationships with a lot of people from the company today, 15 years later, including my boss in telecommunications and the COO. They now all know about my mental illnesses as I have been very vocal about it, and they are just as they were at work - totally understanding and supportive. They are just all around great people.
To rid your workplace of stigma, you just need acceptance. That is all anyone wants.
If the shy, anxiety riddled kid starts working below their capacity, ask them if they are okay.
If the severely depressed person takes more days off than allowed, ask them how you can help.
When people go to management and advise them of their mental illnesses ask how you can make it so that it won’t impact their job. Keep things on a level playing field.
I will forever be grateful to my company I worked for and the way they handled me, my mental illnesses (albeit undiagnosed), and my work ethic and behaviour. They could so easily have wiped the slate clean, said this is too much and have somebody else replace me. But they didn’t.
They kept their belief in me. I don’t know how or why, but they did.
But what I do know beyond a shadow of a doubt is, if they didn’t help me through those hard times with my eating disorder, I don’t know where I would be today.
Empathy and kindness go a long way. And, they both cost nothing. My bosses and colleagues giving me the feeling that I was worthy and that I belonged despite my issues was invaluable to me and my mental wellbeing.
Really, when you give it a think, aren't we all worthy? Worthy of empathy and kindness?
Erin Macauley, Chief Hope Officer, Accelerating Social Good, and Australia Chair, We Are All Worthy, a cause-advocacy campaign to co-create stigma free workplaces on foundation of empathy with needed mental health programs and supports for all.