When Katie had gone through stressful periods before, she’d always managed to bounce back fast. So she figured she’d regroup, and be back in a week or so. Things didn’t quite go according to plan.
Katie’s memories of her first days off are a bit of a blur. But she knows one thing:
Her company was understanding. HR gave Katie the five days off she requested, no questions asked. But as soon as Katie stopped working, the weight of what she was going through hit her.
One week off turned into several. She bounced between doctor appointments, convinced that she could find some diagnosis other than stress. This was supposed to be a less stressful job—how could she get this ill from work pressure?
“For the first few weeks, my only thought was: how can I get myself back as quickly as possible before anyone finds out that I'm fucking losing it?”
The fear of being found out
Slowly, Katie realised that “mental health just doesn’t work like that.” Beyond the physical symptoms, she’d also started having frequent panic attacks and been diagnosed with depression. At some point she started therapy, which helped—but came with its own problems.
“To do therapy through the company’s medical insurance, I had to see a specific doctor every week who checked I was still ill. But I was so paranoid that work was going to find out I was having a mental breakdown. My anxiety just got worse.
As weeks turned into months, Katie’s acceptance of her mental health issues grew. She’d feel better one week, then a supermarket panic attack would set her back a few days. Her goals became smaller and more attainable: leave the house. Go for a bike ride without crying. Sleep three hours. Sleep four hours.
“I'd be really pumped to get things back on track, then I’d fall back to where I was before. There was no linear timeline of improvement. It was really chaotic.”
But above all else, the main thing feeding her anxiety was this fear that she’d be ‘found out.’ Katie often thought about what her colleagues might be saying about her. Since she requested the initial week off, Katie hadn’t spoken to anyone at work about what was happening.
And no one tried to reach out to her, either. Until one day—after five months—she woke up to a text from her manager.
Too little, too late
Looking back, Katie thinks this long radio silence was possibly meant to give her space and relief from work pressure. She also acknowledges her role in creating this stalemate.
But still, she thinks the company should have been more proactive:
“I wasn't expecting to be sent a hamper. But some concern or interest would’ve made it much easier for me to tell them what was going on.”
The first message she received was a general check-in from her manager asking how she was doing. Katie gave a vague but grateful response. The next message floored her: ‘Are you depressed?’
“Being labeled by someone who didn't really know anything about my situation was quite painful. I felt huge stigma around my mental health at the time. That message didn’t help.”
Some brief, sporadic messaging followed across the next couple of months. A meeting was set up, then fell through. While HR were very empathetic, it was clear to Katie that the culture within her team that caused her burnout hadn’t changed.
So two months after her manager got back in touch—and eight since she’d first gone on leave—she left the company.
Katie never revealed what she went through to her colleagues.
What Katie—and the company—should have done
If there’s one thing to learn from Katie’s story, it’s how damaging mental health stigma can be. Katie refused to acknowledge that she was dangerously burned out until it was too late. This made it easy for the company to do the same.
“When that project was dumped on me, I should have taken my leave, looked after my needs, and just said: it's not my problem—I need to recover. I wish I’d been stricter with boundaries.”
But at the same time, Katie feels like the company should have supported her more—long before the burnout became so severe.