CNWL Employment Service Westminster:
Cleveland’s Recovery Story (October 2022)
My mental health issues started in my 30s and I have spent the time since trying to manage and overcome these changes, which have impacted every part of my life. I felt deeply depressed and that I had totally lost control. I couldn’t eat nor sleep properly. I had lost the ability to concentrate on anything and it was affecting every area of my life and I had overwhelming anxiety.
I had been unwell with my mental health for some time leading up to being open to receiving treatment. I have a diagnosis of bi-polar and also suffered from anxiety and depression for many years before I reached the crisis point in the lead up to Christmas 2020.
For over a decade I was employed as Course Leader for Ceramics at a London College and was in charge of the general running of the department, both its full cost recovery (private) classes and its accredited courses; supporting our team of tutors and technicians and teaching several accredited and non-accredited courses amongst other things.
I was finding not just work, but life in general very difficult to deal with. I was suicidal, I did not want to wake up most days and was deeply distressed as soon as I did. I was nervous, anxious, tearful and unwell, both physically and mentally.
I was living my life in constant panic. I couldn’t sleep. Even the thought of work was causing me a visceral reaction. I was starting to spiral and I felt I was about to hit rock bottom with things at their worst with work and my mental health; it was at this point that I was referred to Employment Services.
Work was very pressurised, and I found that despite asking for help and support, my employers were not helpful at all in providing me with any assistance. In fact, they were completely unsupportive of me, my requests and my mental health. Due to this, I did not believe I could take time off sick to focus on my mental health recovery.
My General Practitioner (GP) & Community Mental Health Team (CMHT) could see that there were many issues exacerbating my mental health, but work was clearly the biggest stressor at this time. I strongly believed that my employers were doing everything they could to dismiss me, all whilst my mental health was declining by the day. It was at this point that the consultant in my CMHT referred me to Employment Services. But I really did not think they would be able to do anything to help.
My Employment Specialist helped me to see that initially I needed a break from work and try and start to get all my thoughts & feelings into perspective. They supported and helped me understand how being signed off sick would give me the much-needed space required to allow me to focus on myself. I had no confidence in my ability to do my job and no confidence that anything I would do would make my life
better. My job had taken everything from me and was now impacting negatively on all aspects of my life.
I have always been very transparent with my employer about my physical and mental health issues, but I have not always been well-supported by them, despite repeated requests for help and support prior to working with my Employment Specialist.
My Employment Specialist helped me see that I was unwell and that taking a step back for a period of time to ‘get better’ was the only way to help improve my work situation. They communicated with my GP to support my request to get signed off work.
Once I was signed off sick I reached the point where even talking about work would make me physically sick and set off extreme panic attacks. My Employment Specialist supported me throughout this period and helped me realise I was not on my own. We developed a strong bond of trust, which was instrumental in me being able to be completely honest and open with her. She was able to help me articulate my feelings and work through my thoughts, fears and emotions in a safe space.
My trust in my Employment Specialist was crucial for me to be able to do this. I spoke to her more frequently than I did my mental health team or my GP and this made the difference in us being able to develop a strong, trusting working relationship.
My Employment Specialist supported me to engage with the clinical team and advocated for additional support when I was struggling with managing my mental health decline.
She helped me to look at and identify what parts of my job I liked and which parts were really causing me stress. She was able to then help me formulate a plan for both the short term and the long term and also contacted my employers on my behalf as I felt unable to communicate with them directly without it triggering me.
By this point my relationship with those managing me at work had broken down so badly that I felt I was unable to even talk to them, let alone do so honestly and dispassionately. In a meeting about my sickness my line manager even stated that if I took more time off sick they would dismiss me. This resulted in me having no relationship or trust with my line manager or my place of work, as I did not feel I could talk to them any longer about how I was feeling without prejudice.
My Employment Specialist helped me identify what I loved about my job, how I was feeling about my role and working at the college, as well as how this was impacting me, my mental health and my ability to do my job. Together we compiled a statement about how I was feeling, what I was struggling with and proposing alternative options and working adjustments to keep me in work.
We also explored what my dream work situation would look like. At the time it felt completely unobtainable but my Employment Specialist always had faith it could be achieved. My dream role was to be able to teach without having to take on the responsibility of managing the department, doing accredited paperwork and managing other people and their workloads. I also wanted to teach without coming up with course content. All of the above was requested of me at the last minute and placed me under an enormous amount of stress, which I was internalising. I now realise this was the start of me being able to try and rebuild my confidence in myself and my abilities both in and out of work.
My Employment Specialist sent this statement to my manager prior to my Sickness Review Meeting.
My statement resulted in my employer offering me an adjustment to my duties and role at the college. I was invited an opportunity to take a step back from the more high-pressured role I had been doing for over a decade and return to a still challenging but ultimately more manageable role as a part-time tutor. My Employment Specialist gave me the tools to approach work and be honest with them about issues I was facing and to give me the confidence to say no to things I knew I should say no to and be able to, again, communicate in a healthy and productive way.
This was a stark contrast to any meeting I had previously had with management before. I was offered an opportunity to step away from my role as department course leader for one year and instead return to teaching, which is what I love most. I could then decide whether I wished to return to my previous role or remain as a tutor.
The offer was totally unexpected and provided potential solutions to the many problems I had experienced. I was now in a position where I was on the path to my dream work situation and also finally felt heard and seen by my employer, something I had never thought was possible.
Having the opportunity to express myself in a controlled and professional way has allowed me to advocate for my needs and put in place boundaries. This gave me the confidence boost I was desperately needing. I was able to carve for myself my dream job in teaching and create for the college non-accredited courses, which bring in money that they desperately need. This also benefited the college as they needed to grow the delivery of this area.
My employer has made significant changes in how they support me and my colleagues since my Employment Specialist’s involvement and now look at how best they can support my ongoing recovery through reasonable adjustments to my role through open and positive communication with one another. This helps keep me well and in work.
Having such support from my Employment Specialist gave me encouragement that there were other opportunities out there. She gave me the confidence to explore different employment avenues and look at different jobs with alternative employers. It resulted in me applying for a teaching role at a different college where I was able to gain perspectives about the path of my own career. Getting this role enabled me to be given incredibly positive feedback, which massaged my ego and gave me confidence and belief in myself and my own abilities.
The feedback the management, staff and students gave me boosted my self-belief because I realised I was good at my job and doing things right. But this time I was being told so by others. I no longer felt like an imposter.
Experiencing such positive feedback, has made me more aware in giving positive feedback to my tutors, even if it’s just to tell them they are doing a good job. People are very quick to criticise so I feel positive feedback is important.
Today, I am now in a position where I have my dream job. I have autonomy to create courses I am passionate about without the stress and pressure I had previously been under, all whilst being able to provide my colleagues with my expertise. My confidence has blossomed and I now know my own worth and can communicate this with my employer.
My Employment Specialist talked to my employer on my behalf at a time when I could not, helping me to develop what is now a very positive working relationship with my manager, course leads and departmental leads. This was something I never believed could be achieved.
I know that with my physical and mental issues routine is very important. Work gives me this, plus a sense of satisfaction and wellbeing. It also helps me out financially of course, which eases stresses. I had also realised that it has given me social contact which I know I usually find very hard to engage with. It has boosted my confidence, which had been ground away. Work is really important to me as I like what I do and it gives me a real and genuine sense of satisfaction.
Employment still clearly presents its challenges, but these are on the whole more manageable. I am glad I am in employment as without it I would be lost and ultimately more in crisis. Ceramics is not only a hobby, but my job and also a part of me. I still have my good and bad days, but I know that I on a good day I can tackle any challenges. It’s a positive and stimulating challenge.
I still have bad days but I accept I can still do it on a bad day and have accepted that we all have good and bad days – this was something I couldn’t recognise before. I put myself under pressure that every lesson had to be perfect and that is just not realistic. I therefore developed with my Employment Specialist strategies to help me manage myself long term and these have been very useful in helping when I have had those bad moments.
Knowing I have the safety net in my Employment Specialist is just what I need. We developed a strategy where when my brain is overwhelmed and I feel I am not able to cope that I can email my Employment Specialist with exactly what my brain is filled with and essentially “brain dump” my thoughts somewhere safe. I know I can release these moments to her and can ask for help when I need it. This has been useful in being able to unload safely and in a controlled environment.
I also know that even when I am closed to my Employment Specialist, should I ever need support I can return to her at any point and that is a safety net that keeps me well, whilst being able to know I can do it on my own.
I am now back to feeling and being much more in control of my life in general.
I am very lucky to have the opportunity to access Employment Services and I cannot thank my Employment Specialist enough for what she has done going above and beyond for me at every step.