Wednesday, February 17, 2010

When life gets in the way: coping with mental illness in the workplace

I mentioned in a previous post that we're often expected to leave our emotions and personal problems behind when we step through the office door, and sometimes that's just plain old nonsense (and impossible to do). More often than not, the problem is that people bring too many of their problems to work. This can be hard to figure out because we rarely advertise our problems in an explicit manner. That is to say, very few people ever pull you aside or stand up in a meeting and say, "My mother was an alcoholic and I was always picked last for kickball in gym class--bear with me while I project my rage and codependency issues on the rest of you, my fine but undeserving-of-this-abuse colleagues." You' (and everyone else with a job or in college, for that matter) will meet a wide range of people with varying odd, frustrating, or frightening and discomforting behaviors--explosions of verbal fury, constant snarkiness, lying, paranoia, anxiety attacks, no sense of humor, a terrible and/or inappropriate sense of humor, or just straight out giving you the creeps...the list is endless.

If you have flu-like or cold-like symptoms, it's acceptable and even desired by your office to go home and stay home until you feel better. However, if you come in with symptoms of some sort of mental illness or serious behavior problem, your office is less likely to do anything of the sort. Why? you may ask. Why wouldn't a firm (of any kind, not just architecture) not make an employee fix an obvious problem that's costing one person their job and everyone else their productivity? First off, no one likes to confront anyone on anything. But second of all, if a company pulls someone aside and says "we think you have rage issues/alcohol problems/bipolar disorder/whatever," they may be bound by law to help the employee get help for that problem. There goes money and time to help this person get well, which may or may not work. Also, if they say "we think you have ______ problem" and fire the person without first trying to help them, the firm can be sued. It's a tough situation for the firms, and it leaves their employees in a tougher situation, trying to deal with a disruptive colleague.

If you're looking for a way to combat mental illness at work (in all its forms, great and small), the first place to start with is yourself. Make sure you're not bringing your issues and hang-ups to work and taking them out on others. Trying to see a situation as clearly and neutrally as possible is a good way to start. When you leave a situation feeling angry, sad, persecuted, depressed, etc., pause and think: do/can I see all sides of this situation? If not, what would help me understand what's going on/what just happened here? Ask a colleague for their honest opinion. (However, you do have to be selective about whom you ask and/or your timing of when you ask--for example, if you ask the office whiner about his opinion, you'll get the whiner's angle, but not a neutral angle. Likewise, if you ask someone who's generally trustworthy for their opinion just before their big deadline, know that they're not directing a lot of energy your way at that moment and may not be seeing clearly either.)

If you find yourself in a constant bad/low/wretched/angry mood, this is where a good mentor steps in. You can bounce ideas and problems off of them to see if you're overreacting. And while therapy is not for everyone, it can be very helpful depending on your past history and your present problems. A good mentor (and frankly, any good friend) should be able to tell whether you're dealing with garden variety mood swings and issues or if you really need professional help. A mental health professional can also help you figure out if you really and truly need medication. A childhood friend of mine discovered a few months ago that she had undiagnosed ADHD for most of her life. She told me that while she had been hesitant to go on medication, it had truly made all the difference in the world. Not only is she able to finish a task once she starts it, she is many times more productive at work, and she no longer leaves colleagues hanging because she hasn't finished something, and she no longer gets distracted in meetings that last longer than ten minutes.

The second way to combat bad behavior in the workplace, whether it's actual mental illness or someone just working out their issues, is not to buy into it. Set your boundaries and guard them. If the office whiner comes moping into your cubicle space to complain about one more person who's got it in for her, calmly deflect her with, "Gee, that's unfortunate, Louise. Forgive me--I have a big deadline for Alex. I hope you figure out a solution for that." When the office rageaholic throws a fit and starts screaming four letter words at you, do your best to remain calm and steady--don't back down and don't flinch and act frightened. Instead, respond with, "Marco, I can understand how this would frustrate you--it does the same to me. But we have to come up with a solution that the contractor can work with, or it's going to hold up the project. Are you willing to help me/us figure something out?" And while companies really don't like to confront people on bad behavior, sometimes they just have to do so. If someone's behavior is making work intolerable for one or more of you, you have to let HR (or whatever passes for HR in your office) know about it.

I could do an entire month's worth of posts on this topic (at least), but if you have any specific questions about this or any topic that you'd like to see covered here on Intern 101, feel free to ask in the comments or in an email from the sidebar. Thanks!

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