a young professional struggles to cope with mental illness
by Shelby Morton
Artwork by Chanda Ramnath
Let’s paint a picture. You’ve just graduated from university. You’ve been applying for jobs for months and like every other new graduate-- you’re worried you won’t find one. Then a month after graduation, you’re hired for the job of your dreams. It pays well, it’s high profile, it looks great on a resume; it’s exactly where you’ve always wanted to be.
But there’s one caveat-- you struggle with severe anxiety.
Questions quickly arise. Is this too much pressure? Will my anxiety affect my job? Will I do a good job?
This is exactly what recent graduate Jennifer Burns (who, due to the nature of her job, declined to give her real name) has struggled with as a new professional in a high-pressure industry.
Jennifer graduated from university with a bachelor of social work in April, 2015. A month later, she got hired as a youth social worker at the hospital where she did her field placement.
“I felt ready to have a full-time job, having spent years in both college and university,” she said. “But with that comes the anxiety of knowing that I have to actually take on the responsibility of being a practising professional and no longer a student.”
Jennifer has experienced generalized anxiety disorder for about two years.
“A lot of my anxiety is socially driven. I have a lot of obsessive and racing thoughts, perseverating on an idea, doubting myself,” she said. “I get tense, shaky, with sweaty palms and nausea.”
Photo by Shelby Morton of Jennifer Burns
She said her anxiety became more pronounced when she transitioned into the workforce through field placements.
“Handling that type of responsibility while managing a mental health issue is a lot,” she said. “And as a student you’re always comparing yourself to more experienced people in your field.”
One particularly difficult challenge Jennifer said she has faced has been with public speaking.
“I have to lead ‘family sessions,’ where I have to facilitate a discussion with a group of people,” she said. “Which is basically public speaking.”
“The first couple times were extremely anxiety provoking,” she said. “Because I’m mindful of the fact I want to serve the family that I’m working with and do a good job but also that another staff member is likely present and observing.”
Jennifer said another part of her anxiety stems from her fear of failure, of wanting to do a good job.
“Sometimes you have to fake being confident especially when you’re a new grad and have anxiety like I do,” she said. “It’s not very reassuring to clients if you’re noticeably anxious or nervous.”
Jennifer hasn’t disclosed her struggle with anxiety to her employers, but she said she would feel comfortable doing so if she felt significantly impacted.
“I’m lucky because I work in a mental health ward; I know the resources are there,” she said. “Through our employee assistance provider (EAP) benefits, we have access to those resources.”
Karen Viveiros is communications manager of the EAP program, Lifeworks, at human resource provider Ceridian. She said a strong EAP program can help channel a person to the services that they need.
“We often undermine the employee’s life outside of work and how that can affect productivity,” she said. “And more often we don’t know how to address that effectively or where to go.”
LifeWorks is a confidential 24 hour-a-day assistance program, where the employee can call toll-free, email, chat online or set up an in-person meeting with counsellors, or “triage consultants.”
“Whether it’s as simple as an answer to a question, or issues related to work, family or money, our consultants can assist them directly or provide support through recommendations to community agencies or referrals to counselling services,” Viveiros said.
She said that LifeWorks’ clinical statistics show that healthcare workers access its counselling services at about at 10 per cent higher rate than employees of other sectors.
She said it would be difficult for LifeWorks’ research team to pinpoint why.
“What we do know is that it’s a very stressful line of work. And we know that caring professionals experience burnout and compassion fatigue,” she said.
Viveiros said anyone with a mental health issue would benefit from EAP services.
“It also helps support the development of a healthy culture, knowing that’s available to you and knowing that your employee cares enough to make that available to you,” she said.
Jennifer said, despite these resources, admitting to a mental health problem can sometimes be a struggle.
“A lot of times in healthcare professions, people want to seem like they have it all together,” she said, “I definitely feel that.”
Maggie Fung, manager of health human resources at the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA), said there are benefits to divulging a mental illness to an employer.
“One is the protection from discrimination under human rights legislation,” she said. “It’s then classified as a disability.”
Fung said the OHA is developing a web series about mental illness in the workplace.
“It’s in the very early stages but our plan is to provide various mental healthcare resources to our members in order for them to better help their own staff, therefore allowing that staff to feel more comfortable speaking out if they need to.”
Jennifer said she learned a lot about self-care while studying social work.
“You have to take care of yourself, especially in a helping profession where you’re often seeing a lot of difficult situations,” she said.
Leslie Carmichael, director of the people, engagement and culture program at the OHA, said mental well-being at all levels is the most important piece in a hospital setting.
“Healthcare workers are on the frontline,” she said. “It’s extremely important that they are mentally well. The care that the patient is getting is going to be subpar otherwise.”
Because of the demands of her job, Jennifer admitted she doesn’t always take care of herself.
“Proper self-care is so stressed in our field,” she said. “But it’s difficult to actually practise it. A lot of the time I’m working through my lunches and staying late.”
But she is seeing a personal therapist and is taking a new medication.
“Anxiety is definitely something that affects me on a daily basis,” she said. “But taking my medication, practicing mindfulness, eating and exercising regularly, and hanging out with friends is all a part of self-care, and I try to do that whenever I can.”
Jennifer said it’s also important to remind herself that a lot of her perceived missteps at work are a byproduct of anxiety.
“My anxiety tells me something that’s not always true. You really are your own worst critic,” she said.
But she said it helps to seek feedback from her peers.
“I’ve only really received positive feedback from my superiors thus far,” she said.
“And honestly, hearing that reassurance really does help. It lets me know ‘OK, I really am doing a good job here.’”