A Letter to my Employer Regarding my Mental Illness

To my employer,

I’ve been working at your grocery store as cashier for a month now. I genuinely enjoy the position.

I enjoy interacting with our customers. Sometimes they are grouchy. Sometimes they are kind and understanding. Sometimes they are impatient. Sometimes they take their problems out on me. Overall though, I work really hard to accommodate them because I want to do good by the store and you, and because the understanding customers make it worth it. I also work really hard to accommodate them because when working in a position where customer service is everything, “the customer is always right”.

I’m writing to you today because while I feel so ashamed to say it, I need accommodating, too.

I want to stress that I know very well that it is viewed as unprofessional for an employee to need extra help.

As you know, I experienced a panic attack a couple weeks ago in the middle of my shift. I felt so bad about that and I apologize again for not being able to complete my tasks that night.

You may have hired me expecting me to be like anyone else — to be able and diligent. I have had high expectations for myself, too, as I need a job to survive right now. While I desperately wish I was like anyone else, the truth is, I’m not.

I am hard-working and doing my best, but I want you to know that I am 1 in 5. I struggle with mental illness.

I struggle with anxiety and PTSD.

You don’t necessarily need to know the “why” behind what contributed to myself developing these illnesses, but I would like to explain to you how this affects me in my work today.

First of all, I know that everyone has a little bit of anxiety. Everyone has worries. Everyone has fears. While I appreciate when people are sympathetic and say things like, “Oh it’s just an anxiety-provoking job”, or “I feel like that too”, because they mean well and are trying to relate, it is not the same. This is different.

I was professionally diagnosed with these mental illnesses. They are legitimate struggles that have taken me quite some time to learn how to cope with and manage. While I love this job, I’ve noticed lately that the work I do (and need to do because I financially need to have a job right now) can trigger my mental illness symptoms because I haven’t completely adjusted yet.

I am improving at my job every day and I am working to hard to please you, but I want you to know that it’s been challenging for me.

My anxiety and PTSD sometimes go hand-in-hand. For example, if I’m behind my register and notice a long line of customers forming, my anxiety is triggered because I worry immensely about the speed I’m going, while also trying to balance being effective. My PTSD is also triggered by loud noises and lots of visual stimulation. In turn, I can become hyper-vigilant. These two struggles can create the perfect storm for myself because our work environment often has a lot of people shopping and working, as well as loud noises.

My job requires asking each customer the same several questions, scanning every item (or punching in the code for produce or products with damaged barcodes), quickly bagging the groceries (often 20+ items per order), putting “like items” together, while simultaneously trying to be quick, processing the payment and then do it all over again for the next one.

While you know the tasks that my job entails, I want to explain to you how my brain works when checking out each customer’s order.

In general, I have worry thoughts racing through my mind during each checkout. I present myself as friendly and helpful, but there’s a stark difference between what you see and what I feel.

Internally, I worry about nearly everything. I worry about my pace. I worry if the customer is pleased with me. I worry about how I’m doing balancing the speed and effectiveness of each checkout. I worry if the customer will think I’m rude because while I’m counting money they hand me or change I give back during a transaction, I’m so focused on performing that one task correctly that I worry I may accidentally appear unfriendly when I am trying hard to concentrate. I worry about overthinking, and I overthink the worry itself.

While this is going on in my mind, physically, my face can become flushed when I’m anxious. I also tire quickly when I’m experiencing the hyper-vigilance PTSD makes me feel. When I’m feeling anxious at work, my eyes are darting all around my workspace trying to figure out what to do next and when to do it, especially when there are lots of customers because we have to quickly, but effectively, checkout customers.

Anxiety also causes me to not be able to stand still for long because I feel so jittery and worry about making mistakes.

In the month I’ve worked at your store, I’ve been striving for perfection. I realized today though that just like I couldn’t be a “perfect patient” back when I needed to go to treatment centers when recovering from other mental illnesses, I can’t be a “perfect employee”. Perfection is unattainable, and is something no one should be expected to strive for. At the end of the day, if someone struggles, they struggle; we can’t force ourselves not to.

You may not expect me to be perfect, but I have been putting an incredible amount of pressure on myself to be a “perfect employee”. I’m also seeing now though that the pressure I put on myself leads to not only a greater risk of myself burning out and potentially experiencing a panic attack again, but also of myself making mistakes.

Human error is inevitable, especially at a fast-paced work environment, but I beat myself up so much when I do make mistakes. I take this job very seriously and I appreciate you depending on me as your employee.

I walked into your store hiding everything. I hid everything because I didn’t want to be shamed or stigmatized just because I struggle with mental illness. I also did so because I didn’t want to be a burden.

While I am glad I gave it my absolute best before assuming I would need accommodations, today I am asking you for some additional support.

I don’t want special treatment. I am relaying this information onto you though because my struggles are real, valid, and I need some help minimizing the stress and pressure I feel every moment I am working.

Lastly, I want you to know that I’m not proud of my struggles. I’m not proud for needing your support.

I applied to this job and walk into the door every day acting like any other “normal” person because I feel like I have to. Perhaps I have to in this line of work, but I’d appreciate any support in finding ways you can accommodate to my struggles so I can breathe easier, while also ensuring effectiveness and productivity as your employee.

I am not going to share this entire letter with you because this was a therapeutic activity for me; I needed to write this and not send it. However, I have been researching my options and am going to contact the HR department. I hope to propose and negotiate accommodations for myself to you, like maybe working in a few 1-2 minute breaks into my shift so I can take a moment to breathe and drink cold water, or maybe being allowed to have a water bottle and a small bottle of hand lotion at my station so I can drink cold water, and apply lotion and inhale a soothing scent when I’m feeling stressed. I hope you’ll understand.

Thank you once again for being understanding when I experienced a panic attack a couple weeks ago during my shift. I feel obligated to assure you that won’t happen again, but I also know for myself that the anxiety and the stress I’ve been feeling especially these past few days may set me up to burn out again. I want to assure you I will be ok and that I won’t have any additional problems at work, but I don’t know that for sure. However, my hope is that working out accommodations to support me in my struggles will allow me to do my job more safely and effectively — for both of us.

Sincerely,
Your employee who struggles with mental illness and is trying her best.

If you have difficulties doing your job due to mental illness, I encourage you to research more about how you can advocate yourself, while also protecting yourself. As said by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), “There are laws in place that protect you from discrimination and unfair practices on the job…While you must be able to perform the essential tasks of your job, you are entitled to reasonable accommodations (changes made to company procedures/rules) that will help increase and maintain your job performance”. Read more here.
Feature image credit: unknown. Contact me if you know the source. Thank you.
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