For 19 years, I've been employed at various jobs, and living with SZ, I've come know what I need to do to be successful on the job. Some of what I've learned is specific to my personality, and thus my focus in this blog entry will be on skills that everyone can adopt. Three things are integral for those of us with the diagnosis.
First, I'll reiterate that I'm not a fan of disclosure. For two weeks after my advocacy bio was printed in the employee newsletter [when I won the NAMI-Staten Island volunteer of the year award], I had a heightened worry about what my immediate co-workers thought of me. It occupied a lot of my time.
Second, in researching the factors that enable people with SZ to remain employed, I read that vocational rehabilitation clients who were interviewed rated medication compliance as the number-one predictor of being able to function on a job for the long-term. With symptoms under control, it will be that much easier to meet the demands placed on us in the workplace.
Third, support networks such as family, friends, and a peer support group are valuable outlets for coping with stress. I meet with a group of women once a month to talk about what's going on in our lives: we dish about guys as much as about our diagnoses and our jobs, and encourage each other to take risks.
Now I'll turn my attention to things that people with SZ need to know in general that have nothing to do with the illness:
1. Stick with your first job as long as you can to gain valuable skills and experiences.
When I was younger, I quit a job because I didn't like the guy I worked for. It's OK to leave if the person is a jerk whose cruel behavior impacts your mental health. Yet you can't change jobs every time you don't get along with someone. There's a difference between a quirk and a character flaw. Certain people would push your buttons even if you didn't have schizophrenia. One caveat: If all your coping techniques for dealing with the office bully fail, you may have to walk away.
2. Refrain from using your boss as a therapist for perceived workplace injustices.
On my second job, I wrote in my response to a performance review that I felt "belittled" because of the firm's rules. A year later after my supervisor left, her replacement brought up what I said, and he had it in black-and-white. Save your frustrations for you real therapist, who can actively listen to you vent your frustrations. You're not always going to like policies, and short of unethical conduct, you'll often have to take them as they are.
3. If you're invited, go out after work with your co-workers.
You don't have to drink or have a beer, by the way. You can talk about safe topics-the latest movie that's gotten star reviews, your children or niece or nephew, anything light and breezy. Steer clear of commenting about other co-workers. If someone else does this, keep silent. You may secretly agree that the guy in accounting has bad taste in leisure suits, yet even with something as innocent as that, simply smile and don't get involved. A boss once praised me for refraining from left-handed comments and not getting catty.
4. Be a good "salesperson":
If you're talking with a co-worker who tells you she's looking to buy a house, the next time you meet, ask how the hunt is going. Subtle suggestions that you remember a few details about someone's life will impress him or her. You don't have to repeat things that would scare the person. It can be as simple as asking, "How's Timothy?" instead of "How's your son?"-if you know the son's name. Always have kind words for your co-workers. It
will brighten their day, and they'll form a favorable impression of you.
5. Apprise your boss when you've completed key assignments and what the result was.
This goes back to something I learned when I worked at McDonald's [yes, I worked at McDonald's] the summer after I graduated high school. I always made the coffee and re-filled the machine, but because I never did that when the boss was looking, he claimed I never did it. One day I was lifting the pot out of the burner, and it exploded on me, and the boss couldn't deny I was hard at work.
6. Do the most important work first thing in the morning and schedule big projects at the times when you have peak energy.
If you have an office, shut the door when you need to concentrate for uninterrupted periods of time. Open it later to let others know you haven't been buried alive under an avalanche of paperwork. Develop "self-accommodations" that enable you to do your job. One of these could be as simple as spending the last fifteen minutes of the day filing away documents in your file cabinet, and writing down the next day's "top three" to-do's before you leave.
7. At work, only do the job you're paid to do-not steal time to write in a journal or buy a shirt from L.L. Bean on the Internet.
On lunch is the time you can order that cute shirt. At an internship at McGrawHill, I experienced times when it was slow, so I took out a book to read. My boss came by and told me I shouldn't be reading books in my spare time. Interesting, because this was a publishing company I worked at, right? Her idea of an acceptable down-time activity was to call someone on the phone for a short chat. This was my first formal work experience after college. To avoid this scenario altogether, always ask your supervisor if he or she has any other work you can do before you're caught twiddling your thumbs.
The last thing I want to talk about is a re-play of "Finding the Work You Love," because when you're actively involved in a job that gives you joy, you'll feel good about yourself and your prospects for recovery. The little things-minor irritants-you'll be able to take with a grain of salt. It may even be possible that with the right work, you find nothing gets you worked up and you take things in stride.
If you're employed at a job or in a field where you have to act counter to your personality just to prove you've "made it" or are normal, this can have dangerous consequences to your mental health. I spent seven years working as an insurance broker, cycling in and out of one job after another. I shudder to think that fighting to make it work had repercussions.
Yet I'm here as living proof that it's never too late to chart a different course: I've been a librarian for close to ten years and a freelance writer for six years. Sometimes, it just takes time. My hope is that what I've written has given you some strategies for avoiding some of the mistakes I made. I've been employed outside of the mental health field. Next week, I wind down this Working Life blog series with a look at peer advocate work, and close out with "The Job of Recovery."
Published On: December 04, 2008