Written by Alessandra Patti
This image was me 8 years ago, going to my psychological therapy during my lunch break, in the middle of the week while working full time, and trying to catch a tram + bus (30 minutes from my former office location to the city!) so that I could be back in the office on time, big smile and back to work not too late in order not to create mystery or suspicions around where I had been!
Sometimes my colleagues would invite me for lunch, but if it was "that" day when I had to go see my therapist (who could never made it past 5 pm, and it was too hard for me to go at 7.30 am before work! so it was what it was) I was kind of running out of excuses, I just was too ashamed. Sometimes I would say "I have to go to the doctor's" or "I am meeting someone for lunch" or "I go for sports", but it was just so heavy! It's like I was hiding a part of me, inventing stories to my colleagues at work, who were also my friends. I felt like a criminal in disguise, hiding away.
Until the day arrived: I could not take it anymore.
I had just arrived from a session and I was sweaty from all the running from the bus to the office door; I was even late for a meeting, since I had lost the tram connection back to the office.. I went to the toilet, looked at myself in the mirror and said "You are telling your boss this!"
I felt like it would make my working life easier, I would just be happier and I felt that actually work at the time was making me happy; the issues I had were related to my personal life; my distress was coming from my relationship at the time, but this was interfering with work because of the therapy sessions schedule, and I was working extra hours without saying anything to compensate that longer lunch break! Which made me also feel guilty. I needed to open up.
During a one to one I told the person who was my manager at the time. I said that I was going through tough times in my private life, but that I enjoyed working and everything was fine, that work was motivating me, I just needed to see my therapist on a weekly basis, during my lunch break. And that therapy was helping me. This meeting was to explain why sometimes I was a bit late coming back to work or I had to eat in front of the screen while sweating from the bus-office run.
I will never forget my manager's answer.
My manager said: "How is your therapist? I hope you have a good one, since I really had a bad experience with one therapist I saw some time ago. And thanks for having told me, so now I know and see how I can help you. How are you feeling today? What happened in your life that triggered this?"
And we talked over coffee. It was a relief. Sometimes it was OK to have home office after the therapy sessions, since I did live in the city; some other times I just got back to the office a bit later but walked from the bus stop rather than running. Or I would just leave office earlier to go to the session.
3 years afterwards I took up psychology school and then coaching, to become certified practitioner (which led to FindYourWay Coaching in 2017). In that very company where I had spoken up I initiated my first coaching group, called "Business Women Coaching Group", to tackle issues of time management, distress and open communication with managers. I ran it surrounded by my female colleagues. More happiness and less stress was reported after those lunch and coaching sessions.
I have always treasured my manager's answer. It seemed like a mountain to me at first, but once I found the courage to talk about it, my relief was immense and I went to work even with more motivation, since I knew my manager got my back. It is possible to speak up and talk about mental health, as you would talk about physical health. Imagine your psychological therapy would be like physiotherapy. You would tell about it right? You would most probably also go during the working hours and then come back to work as usual.
Maybe at this very moment you are having coaching or therapy online, and if you are working from home is easier to keep it for yourself. But please consider what will be more sustainable for your personal and professional needs in the future. What do you need so you can be happy and fulfilled for your mental health?
I hope this story encourages leaders to tackle the mental health topic with their direct reports with no fear, and also encourages employees whose assumption sometimes is that they are going to risk their job if they talk about their emotional distress.
I know my story could be different from other people story. I know some might have been dismissed or criticized after having opened up, and I am sorry that happened to you. But if we all make these steps forward, stigma will be broken even more and we will be more ready than ever to act on mental illness prevention or burnout overall.