I don’t deal well with change. Not even so-called good change. There is always a what-if, a doubt, a hesitation, something to keep me pacing up and down until four in the morning. Change makes the water ripple for too long and I find it hard to keep swimming. The supposedly exciting new chapter of getting into my first-choice university at 18 was not exciting at all. In reality, the shift from quiet village-school life to raucous university life was a swirling pool of hell that triggered a nervous breakdown. By the time I finally settled into my new surroundings, it was halfway through second year and my university career was almost over.
The transition into the world of work was even harder. I’d done freelance writing and a few marketing internships during summer holidays, but these had all been through mutual contacts. Applying for my first full-time job was different. At university, I always received feedback on my assignments, so if I didn’t get the mark I’d hoped for, I at least understood why. As disappointed as I might have been, the feedback was always logical, and it was only ever about my academic work – it was never about me as a person. Job hunting, on the other hand, is deeply, crushingly personal. In my early application days, I either never heard back, or got rejected for reasons owing to my character, or reasons that simply didn’t make sense. “You’re not the right fit for the team,” “You seem a bit closed-off,” “Your interview task was actually better than the other candidate’s but they had more experience.” The first time I got rejected from an agency job after getting down to the final two candidates, I sat at the top of my parents’ staircase and cried for an hour. The two-sentence-long email simply stated that I “was not the kind of personality they were looking for.” The memory is burned into my brain.
And so began months of rejections. The pattern was always the same. I’d get down to the final two candidates and miss out right at the crucial stage – which was almost worse than not getting offered an interview at all. My self-esteem took a battering. I felt that everything about me was wrong somehow, so I kept trying to act out the person I thought everyone was looking for. By the time I eventually did secure my first job, I’d lost all my confidence and sense of self. I was exhausted before I’d even started.
The job was a paid internship in the music industry, which in hindsight was completely and utterly the wrong place for me. At the time, I felt so lucky to be there. I’d made it down to the final 25 interns from over 1,000 applicants. It was what the teenage version of me had always wanted. But the 21-year-old version of me wasn’t so sure. It was a gruelling year. It was exactly what I’d expected it to be, only I hadn’t expected I would find it so hard. I didn’t feel like I could say anything – I didn’t want it to come across like I was complaining, because I knew so many others would have jumped at the chance to take my place. Quitting didn’t feel like an option either. I needed to earn money, and, as damaging as it is for my mental health, quitting has never been in my nature. Nor is it in the nature of the music industry, I would learn. It is a work-hard-play-harder, sleep-when-you’re-dead kind of place. You work through everything. There are no excuses. Which is probably why maintaining your mental health in the music industry is extremely difficult.
People crying in the toilets and hyperventilating at their desks was a regular occurrence. Interns often came into the office at stupid hours of the morning to send new tracks to radio stations, and worked late at an event the same night. I worked with someone who became so mentally and physically unwell as a result of overworking that she took annual leave just to go to hospital and doctor’s appointments. Taking sick leave – or even just saying that you needed help with your workload – felt like committing a sin. Dark circles, red eyes and smudged mascara were just part of the record label aesthetic.
Managing your mental health in the music industry is challenging enough – when it’s your first job it’s even harder. The day-to-day work is one thing, but adjusting to office life can be what completely scrambles your brain on a bad day. It’s all the things that more experienced employees assume everyone automatically knows: where the IT department is, how to use the post room, what time it’s acceptable to leave on a Friday afternoon, how to fix a printer jam, what to say in an email to an important client who’s known for being particular. I spent the first week of my internship not knowing how to use the boiling water tap for tea, and I left late every day because I thought I wasn’t allowed to leave until my manager did. It sounds ridiculous to me now because I’ve been working in offices for four years, but at the time, I had no idea.
Then there’s the matter of your junior level. As an intern, I never wanted to bother anyone. I knew that I was entitled to take time off for illness and appointments, but I felt like I needed to earn my stripes before I asked. Those allowances seemed like privileges reserved for company veterans. Nothing I was experiencing felt serious enough for a chat with HR, and my managers were so busy that talking to them wasn’t an option either. Even if they’d had more time to spare, we didn’t have the sort of relationship where I’d have felt comfortable talking to them anyway.
On a warm summer day about nine months into my internship, I walked out of the office and kept walking until I reached the park. My heart was hammering so hard against my ribcage that I thought I might die. I couldn’t pick out a single coherent thought from my brain. It was sunny but everything was dark and tangled and too much. I felt mad. I do not remember the series of events that followed, but at some point later that week, my GP signed me off work for two weeks with unmanageable anxiety (GAD) and burnout. When I came back into the office a fortnight later, I felt like I’d done something terrible. Nobody spoke to me. People hovered awkwardly by my desk when they needed something. Clearly, I had disrupted the status quo and nobody thought it was rock and roll. I hadn’t gone about things the right way. But then, what would have been the right way? There was no formal process in place. There was an employee helpline, but what happens when that isn’t enough?
A lot of companies fundraise for mental health charities, and even train Mental Health First Aiders – which is a step in the right direction. But if there are no clear steps to follow when you need time off to take care of your mental health, none of these things are actually helpful. Most companies advise employees to talk to their line managers, but often that feels so intimidating and anxiety-inducing, it isn’t actually achievable. Especially when what your unfiltered brain wants to say is, “Hi – I keep thinking about putting my hand into my blender which is obviously a terrible idea because I need my hand for things and I don’t want to blend my hand but I keep thinking about it when I make my smoothies and I really do feel like someone is making scrambled eggs with my brain which is making it quite hard to do life in general let alone come up with creative ideas for this campaign so please can I possibly maybe not come into work for a bit while I work on thinking about not putting my hand into a blender? Thanks so much for your time.”
Now I’m in my third job after graduating, keeping my brain happy is a little more manageable. (It also helps enormously that I left the music industry behind). My responsibilities are much bigger than they used to be, but I’m more confident in my abilities and I know where my boundaries are. I take a lunch break. I leave on time. I don’t have work emails on my phone. If a project doesn’t get completed on time, nobody is going to get hurt. Mental health is worth more than a deadline.
I’m glad I have this mindset now, but it shouldn’t have taken me four years to get here. I worry about younger colleagues and graduates just starting out. We have made progress in the last ten years, but the mental health stigma is still huge, and attitudes in the workplace aren’t great. (Evidence: People saying that they are “so OCD” about their desk layout. Why is this still happening in 2020? OCD is not an adjective, it’s an anxiety disorder. If you don’t correct people when you hear things like this, you are part of the problem). We need more than work charity runs and employee helplines. We need clear steps to follow and mental health days written into all contracts. In the meantime, if you see someone having a bit of a day, ask if they’re okay – and ask twice. They might brush it off, but sometimes it helps just to know that someone sees you. We all need to look more closely. Nobody ever made a positive difference by not paying attention.