Why I care so much about mental health at work
How I came to be a workplace mental health specialist
Over the last few years, mental health has become a big part of my life.
It started out with me working hard to manage my mental health while also trying to thrive in my role as Head of Communications at a major household name. After hitting burnout in Summer 2017 I made some tweaks to my work to help me manage my anxiety and depression. I started work slightly later in the morning, worked from home one day per week and worked hard at learning to delegate and give my team room to breathe.
These changes just didn’t cut it and by March 2018 I’d had a breakdown and was signed off work for three months.
During that time I started seeing my third therapist and took the decision to start a course of anti-depressants – which I’m still taking.
When I went back to work in June that year I was still pretty broken. My employers were very supportive and hadn’t blinked at the time I had taken off. I was lucky that I had private healthcare, a really supportive team and a good relationship with my manager and HR contact.
However, there were small things that had a huge impact on me. On my first day back at work, I had to clear through three months’ of emails; had to ask for a new password; didn’t know where to sit; wasn’t sure what to say to anyone. That first day back could have been made a lot smoother and less anxiety-inducing with some small changes, that wouldn’t have cost the company anything.
Eight months later when I took redundancy from that role, this was the genesis of mad and sad club. The idea that companies are well-intentioned, but a little clueless when it comes to how to support people in managing their mental health at work.
Work can be hugely triggering for people struggling as I was, with anxiety and depression. For me, work gave me huge validation and was the cornerstone of my confidence and self worth. So when my performance at work began to dip as I got more unwell, it had a hugely damaging impact on my already fragile mental health and my toxic perfectionism (a phrase coined by my second therapist – thank you!) was out of control.
I was deep in the well of anxiety and depression and it took me the best part of a year to get out of it.
After I returned to work and was on a more even keel, talking about my mental health at work became more and more important to me. Initially, I felt that I couldn’t NOT talk about it as it was so obvious that my mind was the reason I hadn’t been seen for three months.
I was open with my team about how I’d felt, where I was at and my limitations. I was honest that I needed to work in a different way, a way I felt would make me a better manager. I would need to delegate more (which wouldn’t be difficult as my control freak tendencies made me quite the micro-manager previously); give them more responsibility and ask them to take more decisions on their own.
Changing the way we worked together had almost immediate positive effects on me and the team.
But it wasn’t all about work. In being honest about how I was feeling, we started to build a braver, more open culture in our team. Other people were starting to open up when they were reaching the point of overwhelm. I started to confront people I was worried about and use my experiences to empathise and suggest a course of action.
By the time I left, I think we had built an open, honest, and ultimately more healthy team – it’s something I’m incredibly proud of.
Professionally, I was in a position to start to take action on the way talked about mental health in the workplace. I encouraged the team to mark major awareness days and weeks and made sure we supported the HR team when we signed the Time to Change pledge.
However, pledges and policies only get you so far.
The thing that made the single biggest difference to the culture around mental health in the organisation was sharing my story widely. I wrote this article, which was shared on our intranet in the lead up to World Mental Health Day last October and it started to spark a conversation.
That conversation led to us setting up a Feel Good Champions network to provide peer support; to me providing coaching and support to other managers unsure about how to approach someone they were worried about; to others being open about their mental health issues. On Time to Talk day in February, another member of staff shared their first person story, which encouraged a flurry of engagement and openness.
I was proud of what I helped to achieve there.
Now I want to use my lived experience, my professional capabilities as a senior leader and communicator to help organisations help their staff. If this is something you’re passionate about, get in touch – together, let’s take action on mental health at work.
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