career

"3am panic attacks and suicidal thoughts: How toxic work culture almost destroyed me."

Content note: The following deals with suicidal ideation. For 24-hour mental health crisis support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

It was the morning tea break at a conference. Melbourne woman Jo Farmer stood at the back of the room, staring at her phone, as the other people mingled around her. She knew she should join in, engage, network; she was there on behalf of her team. But she couldn’t.

Panic had reared up inside her. It was paralysing.

What to do if someone around you has a panic attack.

Video by Mamamia

“All of the voices in my head were telling me that I was the worst person that ever existed. And having to have a conversation with someone when you feel like [that] is really hard,” the 29-year-old told Mamamia.

“I had this strong physical sensation. All I wanted to do was crawl under one of the tables, beneath the tablecloth, and just hide from the world.”

When it was finally over, she fled.

“I got the tram back to the office, and the whole way thoughts of suicide were really strong,” she said. “I was like, ‘How do I get through this? What is wrong with me?'”

It wasn’t the first time her mental illness and work had collided, but it was the moment she accepted that she needed to address it. The way her boss responded saved her life.

“I was waking up every night at 3:00 a.m. having a panic attack.”

Like Jo, half of the Australian workforce has experienced a mental health condition, according to new research by Superfriend.

Of those, two in five reported that their workplace either caused their condition or made it worse.

The report, released by the organisation this week, is based on a survey of more than 10,000 workers; the largest of its kind conducted in Australia.

The top three industries in which employees reported that their job caused their mental ill-health are manufacturing, public administration and safety, and construction.

Jo has worked in the professional services industry for a decade. While she has lived with mental illness since her pre-teen years, she said the conditions in two workplaces fuelled her symptoms.

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During her time at one company, she was exposed to conditions that took a dangerous toll on her mental health. The hours were long, the pressure high and, even when she wasn’t working, she was thinking about work.

“I was waking up every night at like 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. having a panic attack about all the things that I still needed to do,” she said. “And when I say panic attack I’m not using that [phrase] colloquially — I mean actually can’t breathe, can’t think of anything else.”

One night, her normal self-soothing methods failed. She decided the only way to cope was to do the task she was panicking over.

“So open up my laptop and I wrote this thing, and I sent it off to the team. It went through into their email account with a timestamp of 5:15am — on a Saturday!” she said. “And then at 7:00 a.m. I got an email from the partner going, ‘Thanks.'”

While she acknowledges no one explicitly ordered her to work around-the-clock, the expectations were imbued in the culture.

“I think the nature of those kinds of companies is that they hire people who are anxious overachievers. And they really thrive on people who are perfectionists,” she said. “But I think there’s a very thin line between being a perfectionist and anxiety disorders. And who knows what side of that line is healthy.”

What needs to change: Jo’s advice for employers.

Jo left that company after three months (the night after she resigned, she slept through for the first time in weeks), and now operates her own policy and evaluation consulting business, which specialises in mental health.

She’s seen firsthand the power of having a workplace that’s empathetic to people with challenges like hers. The company she was employed by when she attended that conference was among them.

“I had a manager at the time who went, ‘Look, I’ve never had a mental health condition, so I don’t know what’s happening in your head. But tell me what you need,'” she said. “And together, we were able to design a bunch of things that supported me to stay in my role.

“I’m not exaggerating when I say that saved my life.”

What exactly makes a ‘successful’ life? Robin Bailey and Bec Sparrow discuss.

Having been a manager herself, Jo acknowledges that, with financial targets, deadlines and so on, a workplace can — and should — only do so much.

Effective solutions will vary based on the size and nature of the company, the type of work, and the employee’s needs. But things like flexible working hours, clarity around roles and expectations and vulnerable leadership culture certainly make a difference.

Beyond the obvious human benefits, the business case for investing in employee mental health is clear. According to research cited by Superfriend, for every $1 that a company invests in mental health they receive a $4.20 return.

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Meanwhile, doing nothing costs money.

According to the Financial Services Council, companies pay $543 million in workers’ compensation and $750 million in life insurance claims to Australians each year for work-related mental health conditions.

“My experience of being a manager — and of being managed well and being managed badly — is that the way that you’re able to meet financial or other deadlines is by being a bit more flexible. Give people the space to be what they need to be at work,” she said. “It’s not rocket science. Everyone is different. So you can’t expect that everyone’s going to come into work and be exactly the same every day in every place.

“I was suicidal, but on a very blunt, basic level, because of the things that that my workplace did, I got up and went to work every day after I acknowledged that I had problems. I was a productive member of staff, I made them money.”

The difference between that job and the one in which she was writing emails before sunrise on a Saturday was simple: humanity.

“I think the fundamental issue [in the latter case] was that I wasn’t treated as a person, I was treated as a labour production unit,” she said. “That’s one of the things that for some reason we’ve forgotten, that when people come to work they’re still people.”

And her advice for workers.

Firstly, Jo stresses, it’s important to realise you’re under no obligation to share your diagnosis with your manager or colleagues. Especially if you don’t feel safe doing so.

If you do need someone to lean on at work, find someone who you can trust, who’s shown empathy in difficult situations.

“It might be that like you have a work wife or a friend in another team who, on the days where everything feels impossible, you can go to and say, ‘Look, I feel like I’m on the brink of falling apart. Can you just be here for me today? Can you watch out for me?'”

Help-seeking beyond the workplace is crucial, too. For Jo, that’s having good clinicians, supportive friends, meditation and mindfulness: “That means that I can go into work and be a stronger person than I would otherwise.”

When all of that comes together, work can actually play a role in improving mental health.

“When work is working, for want of a better word, it gives me meaning and purpose. It’s a part of my identity,” she said. “It’s a part of who you are.”

But ‘part’ is how it should stay.

If this post has raised issues for you, or you just need to speak to someone about your mental health, please reach out to one of the below services.
Lifeline: 13 11 14.
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
eheadspace (youth-focused service for people aged under 25): 1800 650 890

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