Mental health in the workplace: A story of survival

Claire Farrow

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I was introduced to Anabela Figueiredo at Mad World Summit on October 9.  Ana
is Head of Strategy Enablement for HSBC Holdings PLC and reports directly to the Strategy Office of the Group CEO. We had a very open and frank discussion about her first-hand experiences of mental ill- health and the conclusions she has drawn that employers can learn from – whatever their size and whatever their sector. Although this is very much her personal story and is not representative of HSBC, she has agreed to let me share her thoughts on the vital role employers can play, as more and more recognise that not only is
there a huge human cost of poor mental health at work – looking after the mental health of employees is fundamental to business success. This is Ana’s story. 

How did it start?
Life was good. I had become a mother two months earlier. My husband and I had just undergone a series of health tests to support a mortgage application. I had taken a test on a treadmill and, for some reason, my heart rate refused to settle. As I walked out into the muggy air, I began to feel a strange discomfort in my chest.
On my way home, I found I was unable to speak. My tongue was twisted and my mouth frozen. My hands and arms had curled inwards and my toes had done the same. I swore I was having a stroke. A few hours later, the diagnosis was out – I had experienced my first panic attack. I was sent home with medication and told to relax.

Can you tell us how the panic escalated?
The all-controlling panic and associated phobias consumed me. Again, and again I found myself back in the Emergency Room. I stopped staying home alone for fear of having an episode. I stopped flying, stopped taking the train, stopped going to the mall and to the supermarket. My biggest fear was that the entire world would learn that I wasn’t the strong, independent and determined woman that once defined me. I was weak, fragile, broken, suicidal. This has been the hardest part of my story to share. Why? Because I was afraid that if I shared that I wanted to end my life, I would be locked up, or worse, someone would stop me.

What was the tipping point – the start of recovery?
It was the day when I nearly took my own life, stopped only by the crying of my son which pierced my consciousness. That’s when I decided I could and would return to a normal life. From then on, I took charge. After many interviews, I found a psychologist specialising in panic and anxiety disorders. She was tough but kind. Through phased treatment she provided me with the basic skills to survive each wave of panic and reduce the various phobias that resulted from the panic disorder. She also put me on a physical improvement regime, gave me nutritional advice, sleep hygiene guidelines and daily meditation routines. This helped improve my mental health and resilience. It was a slow and painful process but as I kept exposing myself to my fears, the phobias began to fade. The final phase was discovering what was at the heart of the panic and finding measures that would keep
the panic away. After a course of EDMR, we located the cause – surgery I had when I was 6 years old. I had experienced Delayed Post-Traumatic Panic Disorder.

Why have you decided to tell your story?
Sufferers of mental illness don’t have many faces to help them recognise what survival look like. My payback for being a survivor is telling my story. Today I’d like to think I’m cured. If Panic returns I will pay no attention as I’m no longer scared of her presence. Finally telling my story was a liberating moment and from that day I’ve felt able to share and
help others suffering similar difficulties – providing a sense of hope.                                                                                                                                                                                                                    What are the conclusions you have drawn from your first-hand experiences, that all employers can learn from?

Don’t assume the answer is simply to reduce work responsibility. Work kept me alive and moving day-in, and day-out. It was at work and through work that I found some

freedom from my demons. Employers need to recognise that the answer is not always to send a sufferer of mental illness home or reduce their responsibilities. In fact, that may very well be the worst thing.

Those who suffer from mental illness are not handicapped. Just like physical illnesses, some mental illnesses are chronic and some aren’t. People can and do fully recover and those who suffer from mental illness are not handicapped. When a person has plumbed the darkest depths and bounced back, it’s not a mark of weakness but of exceptional strength.

We need to see the faces of those who have survived. Once a person overcomes a mental illness, it is easy to keep it tucked away in the past. But survivors need to be brave for those that aren’t given permission to fulfil their potential because they are wrongly labelled as handicapped. Employers need to encourage this openness.

Employers need to understand the preventative role they can play. Employers have a significant role to play in prevention, both directly and indirectly. More specifically: Employers should provide their people with the knowledge, skills and tools they need to help prevent emotional, mental or physical illnesses. If we know the role that fear and trust play in emotional health, employers need to ask themselves what leadership styles promotes (or negatively impact) the mental health of employees.

If we know the role that sleep (i.e. rest) has in mental health and cognitive ability, are work and ravel expectations managed appropriately?

Don’t forget that the employer-employee relationship is just that – a relationship. As employers we expect more than is written in a work contract. We expect more, so why aren’t we willing to give more to our employees? Leadership styles that foster respect, humanity and promote wellbeing are an employer’s obligation in what should be a mutually beneficial two-way relationship. Furthermore, if we truly care about our people, it is also just the right thing to do.

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