Like many people, my first experience with serious mental health issues at work came - in part - as a result of a challenging period in my personal life. We talk so much about the importance of a work-life balance, and sometimes this mistakenly gives the impression that we should in some way be able to differentiate absolutely between the personal and the professional. In my opinion, that is unrealistic, unhealthy and in most cases, just not possible.
Some years ago, I was working for a charitable organisation that - in order to get the best results from my job - required me to be available outside of traditional working hours. To begin with, this suited me well: I thrived working flexibly to accommodate the needs of the role. I could be available when I was truly needed, as opposed to being governed by the conventional 9-5 culture that still seems prevalent across many UK businesses.
A good example of this is when I found myself working late one Sunday evening and an urgent call came through from a volunteer working for the organisation. I was able to help that person navigate a crisis, do my job and be ‘present’ when my input was valued and felt. I was happy in my work and grateful that my working arrangements enabled me to take the following morning off, if I needed, to compensate.
A change in management and cultural direction for the charity had devastating effects for me personally when a rigorous working structure was implemented, designed to contain my hours to that of a more traditional ‘desk job’. Suddenly, I found myself unable to perform in my role as I had until that point and a vicious cycle developed: my targets and achievements plummeted and I felt under-valued and down-trodden. I didn’t know it, but I was beginning to show signs of serious mental health issues.
At this time in my life, the personal turmoil I was dealing with as a result of a relationship breakdown served to amplify things at work and I found myself at my lowest ebb. I was hyper-sensitive and felt unable to clear my head: things deteriorated.
I can remember making the decision one morning to walk the two hour journey to work – something that now rings alarm bells in itself – and halfway there I realised that I just couldn’t face walking into the office. I was at breaking point. I stopped in a coffee shop and resolved to return home and seek help; I am hugely lucky in that I found the guidance that I needed, but many others struggle and more can be done to improve appropriate signposting around this issue.
An initial meeting with my GP led to a period of time off work, which was essential and beneficial. Through the NHS I tried various therapies, some of which worked, and some of which weren’t for me: CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) didn’t help me personally, but I benefitted hugely from EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).
This period in my life taught me a lot about who I am and that is a hugely significant aspect of managing one’s mental health. We are each of us individuals and while the flexible working pattern I enjoy so much wouldn’t work for everyone, I was able to identify that it is what enables me to produce my best work. There might be occasions in our lives and careers where professional help is essential – it certainly was for me – but self-awareness is of vital importance too. I now have the complementary self-soothing tools I need to cope with stressful periods, and that empowers me to be the best I can be.
We need to end the stigma surrounding mental health; especially in the workplace. We need to improve understanding within organisations and encourage mental health first aid training so that members of staff feel able to identify colleagues in need of help and know what to say.
An overall change in attitudes to mental health seems impossible, unless businesses make this positive move: take responsibility for building a culture based on trust and work towards engaging with staff in a compassionate and understanding way.
Justin Donne, Director of Inspiration, is a member of the IoD99.
Throughout Mental Health Awareness Week (13th - 19th May 2019) and beyond, the IoD will be featuring stories from our members relating to mental health as part of the #alittlemoreconversation campaign. Track the campaign via the dedicated mental health hub and the IoD's social media channels.
Return to the IoD Mental Health hub