How to be honest with your boss about your health to avoiD burnout
By Jo Gallacher
Jo explains how opening up about her condition meant she no longer felt like her diagnosis was a shameful secret at work.
Millennials often get a rough time of it. We are blamed for being a lazy, self-entitled generation, while simultaneously suffering burnout at alarming rates. Sadly, we know that the latter of the two is the most truthful description of our generation.
If you want to compete in the graduate job market, burnout, stress and free labour are treated as par for the course. We have all done, or know people who have done, unpaid internships or unpaid overtime to get a foot in the door - despite the supposed illegality of these practises. This precarious job market, coupled with the anxiety-inducing experience of an Instagram feed full of carefully-edited #sidehustle, #worktrip, #promotion and top-of-the-range shiny #gradscheme pics, makes us push ourselves to often unsafe extremes to compete for opportunities.
Success should never come at the expense of our health, and too many of us are learning this the hard way.
Sometimes, it feels like thriving at work AND taking care of your mind and body is an impossible combination to achieve. The pressure to jump through hoops at work, despite the cost on other parts of our lives, has never been greater. Last year in the UK, the average number of sick days taken by UK workers fell to 4.1, a decline from the 7.2 recorded in 1993 when the data was first collected for the Office for National Statistics. This may sound like great news, but experts predict this is due to a widespread fear of workers losing their jobs, plus the concerns surrounding being overlooked for a promotion or a pay rise.
We’re not getting any healthier; we’re just getting more afraid of the repercussions if we dare to spend a day recovering rather than sniffling into a tissue behind a computer screen at home. But we need to actively and passionately question this culture.
If a workplace respects and wants to retain its talent (you, don’t forget that), they should be willing to have an honest conversation with that same talent about health issues, and what you and your employer can do together to best facilitate this. This notion isn’t a wild, youthful fantasy; it’s a not-so-distant reality we should be working towards.
Take it from me: someone who has recently been navigating this difficult, but not impossible dialogue with my employer after receiving some unexpected health news.
Six months ago I got the diagnosis I have unknowingly sought since I looked down to find a red patch in my knickers ten years ago. I had always experienced extreme symptoms during my period, and following a series of doctor’s appointments, painfully intrusive scans, and bouts of testing, testing and more testing that didn’t feel like they were ever going to end, it was finally confirmed I had severe Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS), or the charmingly named Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD).
This diagnosis explained why, in the run up to my periods, I was cripplingly afflicted by the cruel combination of mood swings, irritability, cramps and soreness so severe that it began to have a serious impact on my life. The exact causes of this condition are not fully understood, but they are thought to be linked to a hormone sensitivity in the brain. What causes this sensitivity, and its connection to a reduction in serotonin, is currently unknown and, like a lot of women’s health issues, massively under-researched. Perhaps if this were a condition that affected men and their livelihoods, we’d already have the tablets, the therapy, and the monthly paid sick leave to boot. But we can only wonder...eh?
As well as its physical symptoms, PMDD is now classed as a mental illness due to its links to depression, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts in some more extreme circumstances. For years I had battled with frequent dark days and head fogs, often becoming irritable at the slightest annoyance, only to loathe myself an hour later for getting so worked up. It was, in every sense of the world, a vicious cycle.
Despite my initial awkwardness in raising the matter with my boss, I reassured myself with the fact that I was suffering with an illness like any other.
Given the large impact it was having on me, I needed to explain its effects on my ability to do my job consistently. At the time, it was more than uncomfortable - I wanted the menstruation gods to pull me into the pits of hormonal hell - but looking back this chat, it has been one of the most positive experiences of my career.
Opening up about PMDD with my boss meant addressing two taboos in one: the dreaded menstruation and, the only recently openly discussed, mental health. I had been prescribed antidepressants to help me try to manage the condition, but I actually debated whether I should open up about this second part. However, the more I considered it, the more I realised I wouldn’t feel embarrassed telling him I’d taken a paracetamol for a headache, so why should I reaffirm the already toxic stigma floating around antidepressants?
This conversation has defined my relationship with work ever since.
He (yes, my boss was a man) reassured me that the company would do anything they could to make sure I was able to get the time off I needed for doctor’s appointments, plus I was granted more flexibility to work from home whenever I needed to.
I recognise that every case is unique and not every job allows the brilliant privilege of working from home while you zealously apply Sudocrem to breakout skin. But, more than that, opening up meant I no longer had to carry around my diagnosis like a shameful secret.
During your twenties, post-university reality can hit pretty hard. Adapting to being at the beck and call of your workplace is a transition you’re expected to master almost immediately, and when you’re at the lower end of the professional food-chain, there’s often little opportunity to exercise any control. Talking to work about your own health is not only a good way of regaining some form of power (and sanity) but also one of the few areas that no manager can claim to know better than you.
We need to redefine our priorities at work. Hours spent after your colleagues have gone home do not define you or your commitment to your job, and neither does the number of days you have taken off in the last year. Of much more importance is our ability to listen to our bodies and respect them for the pressure we are putting on them day in, day out. Let’s create a workplace which serves us rather than limits us.
Image by Maria Fernanda