The Goddess Weighs In

Living Large and Healthy

What Does A Cry For Help Sound Like?

on December 29, 2012

Just before Christmas a colleague of mine, the person to whom I vented when work demands were too much, suffered a breakdown.  My friend and confidante for the last eighteen months was admitted to hospital for depression and paranoia and none of us saw it coming.  He came to my office a few days before and for the first time I saw how tired he was and this was my first indication that anything was amiss.  A couple days later at our office Christmas party he looked small, lost, and exhausted and people came to me and asked what was wrong.  When he was admitted to hospital people asked me how my bosses and I could have missed that he was struggling, since at the party it was so obvious that he was ill.  The truth is that he hid his suffering.  He wore a mask so convincing that I never suspected that he wasn’t coping with work pressures.  Even his spouse didn’t realize there was an issue until she saw his colleagues reacting to his altered appearance and behaviour at the office party.  In fact it wasn’t until a day or two later when his behaviour was obviously paranoid that she sprang into action and sought medical attention.

Now that he is receiving treatment, I keep thinking about what signs he may have shown and what signals he was giving us that we didn’t see. Like the rest of us he griped about there being too much work and the expectations being too great, but otherwise he was always affable, always willing to lend a hand, always there to listen and to make suggestions.  Perhaps that’s the problem right there.  When I started to consider all the elements of his position and the special projects he was assigned, the meetings he was asked to attend, the various things he was asked to implement, I realized that he was juggling enough work for possibly two full time positions.  He was asked to take on these extra responsibilities because he is bright and diligent, and would complete tasks effectively and on time, but it’s not fair to reward someone who finishes their work by giving them more work.

I know from own struggles with mild depression that there were times when I thought I was being clear that I needed help and yet even close friends seemed oblivious to my struggles.  I talked to one friend who has also struggled with depression and she admitted that she has experienced the same, so I’m going to guess that even if there were signals they were not that easy to read.  In that case we need to be proactive about the situations we put people in or in which they find themselves.  For example I’ve started to instruct my staff to make sure that they take all of their breaks and lunch hours and ideally get up and leave the office.  All too often we sit at our desks and snag bites of lunch between phone calls, visitors and emails.  I also work on average 5 hours of overtime per week.  I am welcome to do all the overtime I want since it’s been made clear that it will be unpaid.  I’ve decided that this must stop.  I’ve instructed my staff that they are not to take work home, nor are they to work after hours.  We work in a union environment so it’s a little easier to draw the line if only we’d stop crossing it because we want to get work done or make sure projects are on track.  The truth is however, that if things don’t get done, we need to stop internalizing that we have in some way failed, and recognize that we need additional support to complete our tasks.

My colleague told my bosses that he wanted to quit and give up his career completely because he felt like a complete failure.  The truth is we failed him.  We piled it higher and deeper and in the end we effectively broke him.  I don’t know if he will return to our unit, I hope so, but at this point it’s not clear.  What I can do is work to keep the same thing from happening to me and my colleagues.

– the Goddess

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