Taking care of your mental health can be challenging at the best of times, but the conditions introduced as a result of the COVID-19 crisis have further highlighted the importance of mental wellbeing. Hannah McHaffie, Marketing and Operations Coordinator at Live Cinema UK, reflects back on her experiences of working and living with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) – offering guidance on how to manage your own symptoms and support colleagues with the condition.
I’ve struggled with balancing my mental wellbeing and my career in film throughout my five years in the sector. It’s only in the last year that I’ve identified what a huge role Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) has played in my day-to-day working life. BPD is also referred to as emotional sensitivity, a disorder with a spectrum of potential symptoms that affect each person differently. It can have a direct impact on personal relationships, patterns of thinking, impulsive behaviour, and emotional stability. Someone living with BPD will ‘differ significantly from an average person in terms of how they think, perceive, feel or relate to others’ (NHS UK).
BPD can affect you at any stage in your career and can be particularly difficult to navigate at the beginning. There is an unspoken expectation on graduates entering the arts to be passionate, dedicated and emotionally invested in their job, often resulting in a shift in priorities and, as a result, a neglection of self-care. Then there’s the frequent absence of structured organisational career progression, a lack of security for freelancers, and the financial uncertainty the UK film industry now faces due to COVID-19.
To combat these struggles, I’ve had to adjust my working practices accordingly, as both an employee and a freelancer. What follows is a guide to managing a range of BPD symptoms whilst working in exhibition, providing some guidance and support for those with BPD and those employing, managing or supporting colleagues with the condition. The following advice may be practical to ensure anyone’s workplace wellbeing but has had a specific and profound impact on managing my BPD. It’s been a struggle, but here’s what I’ve learnt.
Working with BPD
Someone with BPD may instinctively hide any trace of an emotional battle. Add to this a natural impulse to people-please (along with a heaped tablespoon of perfectionism) and it can feel easier to isolate and fight on alone. In a professional capacity this can lead to exhaustion, over-working, and miscommunication. It doesn’t always come easily, but strong communication and transparency with management and colleagues can be a lifeline; a vital tool to utilise as often as possible. With the right management, you’ll leave these meetings or phone calls feeling relieved. Remind yourself frequently that you are only human, you can only do so much, and it takes a certain level of professional maturity to ask for help.
Many people with BPD have to fight with an ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset. We’re particularly vulnerable to becoming consumed by our work and tipping the scales of our work-life balance too far in one direction. We’re not always very good at shrugging our shoulders, accepting what we can’t change, or looking at the bigger picture. Frequent work breaks, whether working from home or in a busy office, can be key to managing this. Never underestimate the benefits of a lunchtime walk or a quick chat next to the office kettle. BPD can make us sensitive to our surroundings. Stepping away from the inbox can help to relieve any intensity that’s building, be it stress, anxiety or emotion.
The disorder can impact our ability to remove the emotion from our work. ‘It’s just business’ is not a phrase you’ll ever hear us say. For us, everything is personal. We’ve all experienced the frustration of receiving a rude email or blunt response. For someone with BPD, this can be devastating. We feel everything very intensely so a dismissive email can make or break our day. Sometimes it takes an outside voice to bring us back to rationality so, again, communicate – it’s nearly always the answer.
Supporting someone with BPD
Supporting an employee or colleague with BPD can seem overwhelming, particularly if you’re unsure about the complex ways it affects them day to day. Here are a few tweaks you can make and initiatives you can consider that could dramatically improve their wellbeing at work.
Working in exhibition, we can find ourselves in touch with work around the clock. As an employer, be mindful of this. Someone with BPD might find it hard not to check their emails late at night. Frequent verbal reminders will help them to avoid this and will be appreciated coming from higher up the chain. Where possible, avoid sending emails or messages after hours; consider scheduling late night emails so they land in inboxes the following morning. People with BPD will need help to help themselves switch off (which is vital to their personal and professional wellbeing). Finances can be a huge emotional trigger. Upfront transparency about freelance fees and paydays is really beneficial. I’ve lost sleep worrying about overdue invoices, something not necessarily unique to BPD. If you employ freelancers, pay them on time. Not doing so could be causing emotional distress that could, and should, be easily avoided.
The restraints of a nine-to-five can feel suffocating for someone with BPD, especially if sleep is compromised. Flexible working hours will likely make for an all-round happier and healthier employee. In 2016 the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that ‘the use of flexible working has a big impact on employees’ attitudes to work–life balance, with 65% of flexible workers satisfied or very satisfied with their work–life balance compared with 47% of employees who don’t work flexibly.’ If you’re in an office, consider implementing a semi-flexible system, making ten until four the core business hours with breathing space either side. Discuss all of these measures with staff, check in and see where more support is needed and what is and isn’t working for both parties. Someone’s emotional barriers can rise when their BPD is triggered so checking in with someone several times might be necessary in order to gauge how they’re truly coping. Face-to-face contact, video calls and even phone calls can be anxiety-inducing. Approach with caution and kindness but by all means approach.
BPD & Coronavirus
A lack of financial certainty, social contact, exercise and vitamin D means many people’s mental health is being rocked by COVID-19. If you’re working from home during this time, everything mentioned above is perhaps more important than ever. My Whole Self provide valuable resources to support your mental health while working from home. Spiralling into bad habits is a common difficulty for those with BPD. Try to counteract bingeing, impulsivity and the instinct to isolate yourself emotionally, by engaging in creative outputs. Practice mindfulness, whether through yoga, meditation, baking, a jigsaw, listening to podcasts or playing video games. Try to maintain communication with colleagues as best you can, making time to chat about things other than work or COVID-19. The Blurt Foundation have put together The Coronavirus Helpful Hub, a collection of resources to help manage mental health during the pandemic. Try to remember these three Cs: Care, Communication and Compassion. Prioritise your self-care, communicate with those around you, and make a point to be kinder to yourself.
I consider my BPD to be an invisible, unproductive work colleague, hanging around my desk when I’m at my most stressed, second-guessing me when I’m about to put forward ideas, or pressuring me into working late. If necessary, report that nuisance to management, so you’re supported when dealing with that psychological pest on those particularly difficult days.
If you are struggling with BPD or another mental health condition and are not sure who to talk to, the Film & TV Charity have a 24 hour support line: 0800 054 00 00. They can provide a listening ear and can quickly refer you to trained counsellors who can provide more structured support over the phone. You can also find more advice and tips on looking after your mental wellbeing on their website: filmtvcharity.org.uk/covid-19-help-advice/mental-wellbeing.