I sat in A&E on a Wednesday morning trying to control my breathing.
My day began normally with a rushed breakfast and a sweaty commute on the Northern Line. I got to work and started to feel lightheaded and slightly panicky. My chest hurt and I found an empty office to try and calm down. It didn’t work. My brain was screaming ‘heart attack’. A kind colleague put me in a taxi with directions to the hospital.
Of course, I wasn’t having a heart attack. It was a swift diagnosis and then I had hours to wait before seeing the on-call mental health specialist. My panic turned to shame. Especially as I watched ‘real’ sick people come and go from A&E.
It wasn’t my first panic attack, but it was my first one at work.
I was diagnosed with anxiety years earlier in Canada by my GP. I managed it through talking therapies, medication, and support from family and friends. I didn’t have to tell anyone at work and outwardly I always looked like a confident professional. I have what is commonly referred to as ‘high-functioning anxiety’.
My stress levels had been building since I moved to the UK. New country, new job, lots of work travel with more responsibilities, and missing my regular support systems. I felt uncomfortable in my own body; it ached all the time, my memory was unreliable, my hands shook, and my stomach always hurt.
I ignored all the signs and pushed through. It wasn’t one thing, anything specific, or even the building pressures at work. I stopped taking care of myself and I was scared to ask for help. Deep down, I knew it was my fault that I ended up in A&E.
I turned on my phone and scrolled through concerned messages from my team. Excuses raced through my mind: migraine, food poisoning, allergic reaction. Anything but admitting the state of my mental health. How could they, or anyone at work, respect me if they knew my truth?
One of my team members sent a private message asking if I needed a toothbrush. Even now, I can’t explain why it was their simple message that gave me the courage to tell the truth. Perhaps I sensed their kindness and concern? Perhaps because it was ‘normal’ when everything else felt out of control? Whatever the reasons, I decided to be honest with my team and my colleagues from that moment.
I am not unusual. The Mental Health Foundation cites a 2013 study with 8.2 million cases of anxiety in the UK. All my life I had been told I was ‘stressed’, ‘a worrier’, and ‘a perfectionist’. These characteristics make me successful, but they often cost me my mental health.
I recognise that being able to speak out is a privilege and that my seniority made it easier. It was still a risk, but I could no longer afford to be silent about my mental health. My main concern was that I would lose credibility at work. I didn’t want others to see me as weak, unreliable, or incapable.
Senior leadership, my team, and my closest colleagues were immediately supportive and sharing my story changed from being scary to empowering. Speaking out gave me some control over my anxiety and I became a better leader because I could bring my whole self to work. I started to see my anxiety as, if not a strength, something that allowed me to engage honestly with others and with my work.
I would like to share that as a white, middle class Canadian women working in reputable organisations with access to support, I feel that I have had some level of privilege at being able to access this support. Additionally, anxiety as a mental health disorder, is also relatively understood and more accepted.
No matter anyone’s background, including mine, talking about your mental health can be scary and make you feel vulnerable.
There is no one way to support mental health at work and everyone copes differently. It’s not about online yoga classes, taking deep breaths, or flexible working policies. I think it’s about awareness, inclusion, and having difficult conversations. Often when I am struggling, the only thing I want from my employer or a loved one is to be heard.
As a leader with anxiety, I think some of the most important things I can do is speak openly about my experience, help others to do the same, and listen to their stories. I took every opportunity to do these things while working at Imperial College London Business School and I continue to do so in my new role at Cambridge Judge Business School. Instead of just asking my team ‘How are you?’, I ask questions like ‘Are you getting enough sleep?’ or ‘What can I be doing to support you?’.
When I interviewed last year for my role at Judge, I intentionally spoke about my anxiety and how it influenced my leadership and working styles. I felt it was a risk worth taking.
I want organisations, employers, and employees to understand, and to see through my example, that having a mental health disorder doesn’t mean you can’t be successful or ambitious. Everyone faces challenges. Our organisations need to be a place that talking openly is encouraged and supported. Anxiety has taught me to be kinder, more empathetic, and that bringing these qualities to work are beneficial for me, my colleagues, an organisation’s healthy culture.
Erin Hallett is a mental health writer, advocate and speaker, originally from Canada- she now lives in the UK. Erin works at Cambridge judge business school.