“I Felt Pressured To Suck It Up”: When Your Mental Health Costs You Your Job

Photographed by Anna Jay.
“I had chronic anxiety and depression in my early 20s that made it very difficult to work. I got headaches and sickness. There were some days where I physically couldn’t get out of bed, and I even developed nerve issues. My job was mind numbing, and the environment was incredibly unsupportive, all of which exasperated my mental health issues. I felt everything was inescapable,” says Jane Smith*, now 35. She was given a week off work to rest — which wasn’t long enough. Having been made redundant soon after (which she still questions), she decided a break from work was needed in order to recover, and didn’t look for a new job until six months had passed.
Recent research found that young people are more likely to be out of work due to poor mental health than people in their 40s, according to the Resolution Foundation. The problem worsens for young people who’ve spent less time in education, which limits their job opportunities. Between 2021 and 2022, 34% of people aged 18 to 24 report symptoms of ill mental health, such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. From 2020 to 2022, 43% (8.5 million) of Australians aged 16–85 had experienced a mental disorder at some time according to the Australian Institute of Health and Wealth.
People with limited career experience — i.e. young people — are more likely to struggle to speak up when needing extra support at work. Antonio Fletcher, head of employment at Whitehead Monckton, says this is because less experienced staff members often have “less confidence to speak out either due to concern as to how this may be perceived by others, or because they have less experience of what more acceptable working environments or demands should be”. This can put young people at a disadvantage in the workplace, potentially leading to being away from work as a result of mental health reasons.

Taking a leave of absence from work for mental health

Psychotherapists have seen patients withdraw from work in the face of mental health issues time and time again. Liz Kelly, therapist and author of This Book Is Cheaper Than Therapy, is one of these professionals. “Clients in my therapy practice have benefited from a leave of absence from work,” she says. “I help them develop a clear plan during their time off. This plan could include attending an intensive outpatient treatment program, making time for therapy and medical appointments, and prioritising lifestyle changes such as improving sleep hygiene, incorporating physical activity, finding social outlets, and developing healthy personal and professional boundaries.” 
While sick leave might be paid for by an employer, leaving outright can cause more mental anguish around financial instability. Smith knows she was lucky to be able to lean on her partner and grandparents to help. “I felt incredibly guilty, and I genuinely have no idea how I would have got through without them,” she says. Countless studies have linked financial uncertainty with poorer mental health, so needing to take time out of work to recover might worsen existing issues. Research by the Prince’s Trust in 2023 found that two thirds of people aged between 16 to 24 lowered their career aspirations, citing concerns over their mental wellbeing.
Kelly thinks it’s important to speak to your company first to see what provisions can be offered, if any, as her clients have benefited from changes made at this end. Samantha King, 35, found that office culture wasn’t right for her during her 20s while managing ADHD and PTSD. Working from home has made a huge difference. “There was a lack of understanding around being overwhelmed by noise or needing time out. There was a lot of pressure to ‘suck it up’ and just get to work like everyone else.” 
Being able to leave work to prioritise mental health isn’t a walk in the park though, either. Before Smith started therapy, being out of work at first left her “with space to fill” that worsened her state of mind. She was plagued by imposter syndrome, her confidence plummeted, and she felt like she was “never going to get anywhere in life”. Struggling to cope, she began therapy and built a plan with a therapist she started to learn how to handle her anxiety and depression.
A decade later, Smith runs a business and ensures mental health and wellness strategies are accessible to everyone at all levels of the company, not wanting any of her younger staff to find themselves unable to work like she did. “People can work from home or in a location that makes them feel comfortable, without the guilt and shame of calling in sick, not doing their job probably, or simply giving up,” she says. She also offers mental health days and a four-day working week to staff. This, however, is sadly not the norm.

The stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace

Mental health experts believe that old stigmas are still rife. Dr Tara Quinn-Cirillo, psychologist and author, has seen first–hand that women are more likely to be told that they’re being “dramatic” when reporting concern or that their reported issues are “hormonal”. At the same time, women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety than men and engage in self–harm, Dr Quinn-Cirillo adds. “With the right support and policies in place most people can be supported to stay in work, and it’s vital to check your legal rights around taking time off during times of mental crisis,” she says. “It’s also important to look at the relationship between your job and your health. Our working conditions and the environment in which we work can exert a significant impact on our wellbeing.” Of course, a work culture that puts supporting mental health on par with physical health in workplaces isn’t always there.
Gen Z might be moving away from hustle culture, but the messaging around achieving and hitting life milestones through work hasn’t left young people, according to Kelly. “People often get the message that they should work harder and push through to finish the job. However, experiencing a mental health crisis is not a character flaw or failure. It’s something that nearly everyone will have to deal with at some point in their lives.” Smith and King have gone onto build successful careers for themselves, but had they received support and help earlier on their careers, they wouldn’t have needed to go through a dark period of figuring out what comes next — just like today’s generation of people in their 20s.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.
Want more? Get Refinery29 Australia’s best stories delivered to your inbox each week. Sign up here!

More from Work & Money