Opening up about mental health at work

Written by Rhys Williams

I sat on a panel this week at the Women in Protection conference, a brilliant event from a brilliant group that’s all about making protection insurance more open and inclusive. The idea for the panel started off as a joke – a token panel of men talking about ‘softer issues’ at a female-dominated conference. But it turned into something really powerful.

On the panel with me were Adam Saville, editor of Cover Magazine, and David Smith, Chief Innovation Officer at Uinsure. Adam was incredibly honest about how bereavement and burnout led him to stop drinking. David told the room how he’d been diagnosed with testicular cancer 15 years ago. The illness was almost the easy part, he said. What he struggled with was the fear.

I spoke about my own mental health problems. Earlier this year, I took some time off. It was the last week in February. I’d been working round the clock since Christmas. That Monday, I looked ahead to the week and knew that I did not have it in me to get through it.

I thought I had a work problem: too much of it. I thought I had a sleep problem: too little of it. I thought I had a medication problem: the wrong dose. I tried to address each of these things in turn. Time off. Less stressful work. Herbal sleep remedies, washed down with warm milk. Double the dose of antidepressants.

It all helped. But nothing helped as much as opening up about why I’m like this in the first place.

I wrote a blog on the subject which you can read here. But to boil my entire childhood into a paragraph, I had an extremely difficult upbringing. A lot of very bad stuff went down. You may have heard the term Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs. There are ten, ranging from verbal, physical and emotional abuse to parental drug and alcohol addiction. Half the population have experienced at least one. One in seven will have lived through four or more. I’ve lived through seven. With every extra point on your score, the risk of long-term effects increases. If you score more than five, you’re more likely to be a high-risk drinker, a smoker, to use crack cocaine or heroin, to have been violent or to have been a victim of violence yourself. You’re more likely to suffer from chronic illness, to develop type 2 diabetes, to have a heart attack and to get cancer.

On the face of it, I’m doing pretty well. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I only do crack at Christmas. But the truth is, I’m not OK and I never have been. The things I’ve struggled with this year are the things I’ve always struggled with. 

Why did I have a work problem? Because I put myself forward for too many things and overestimated what I could do. Why do I do that? Because when I was a kid, I held our family together. You end up feeling like you’re responsible for everything. That endures even when you’re not. 

Why did I have a sleep problem? Because I lay awake at night worrying about everything. Why did I worry? Because that’s been my default position since I was 12.  

Why did I have a medication problem? Because I was always going to. If your ACEs score is more than five, then you are 100% likely to be on antidepressants. Literally everyone in the study was.

This doesn’t mean my fate is sealed, of course. Even with the background I’ve had, I’m just as able to change, learn and grow as anyone is. But the things that happened to me still happened, and the effect they had on me isn’t going away. Acknowledging that has led me to take some really positive steps this year. They might not be right for you, but they’ve worked for me.

I’ve opened up. That’s been the biggest thing. I told my kids, I told people at work, I wrote a blog, I supported a campaign to raise awareness of ACEs and the effect they have, and I sat on a stage on Tuesday and told a couple of hundred strangers the whole lot.

I’ve started being kinder to myself. That doesn’t mean mini breaks and baths by candlelight (I mean, it totally does). It mainly means treating myself like someone I love and respect, and allowing myself to get it wrong now and then. Life’s not Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. One wrong answer doesn’t mean you lose everything.

The other thing I’m trying to do is make this a positive. I said on the panel on Tuesday that most of the peaks in my life have followed troughs like the one I’ve just been through. This one will be no different. It’s not a breakdown, it’s a breakthrough. I’m using it to make myself better, to help people in predicaments like mine, and to spread the word about how we can all deal better with mental health at work.

On that note, here are a few things I would love to see workplaces keep in mind to help people like me.

1. Remember that everyone is dealing with something you can’t see

It doesn’t have to be heavy childhood trauma. It could be two days worth of dishes. But everyone has got stuff going on you don’t know about, without exception. So next time someone at work behaves in a way you find challenging, take a moment before you judge them or criticise them. Ask yourself: is this an opportunity to listen, to help, to be kind? (Trick question: it is.)

2. Remember everyone’s problems are real

On Tuesday’s panel, David Smith said he had felt lucky that his problem was ‘smaller than mine’. He had life-threatening cancer of the balls! Neil Armstrong admitted at a reception for the greatest achievers of the 20th Century that he felt like he didn’t belong there. He walked on the actual moon. So what if you’re scared of big forks (like me) or level crossings (also me) or you cross the road at the same place every day on your way to work (you guessed it). It’s not a competition. Your stuff is important.

3. Foster a culture where being open about your feelings is normal

Not everyone will want to open up in the way I have. But everyone should feel they can. If you run a company, or lead a team, then make a public commitment to listen to anyone who wants to talk. More than that, talk yourself if you can, especially if you’re someone others look up to. It’ll help you, and it’ll give others the cue that they’re OK to speak up too without being judged.

4. Have a plan for being well at work

You probably have a plan for what you’d do if the server went down. But what if the people need turning off and on again? If you haven’t yet, make a plan now to resolve mental health crises – before you need it. Better still, make one for avoiding them. Every workplace, every culture, every environment puts stress on the people in it. That’s a fact of life and we can’t change it. But we can change the degree of stress we put on people. We can review where stress comes from and whether anyone’s bearing more of it than they can manage. It’s actually our legal duty as employers. So do a risk assessment, just like you would if your employees were lifting breeze blocks or climbing skyscrapers all day.

5. Help your people get it right

Dealing with this stuff is hard and people are often in a quandary about how to handle things. It’s a skill, so we should train and coach it like we train and coach other essential skills. My next-door-desk-neighbour at Quietroom, Caroline, has just done a Mental Health First Aid course. She’s going to share what she’s learned with everyone else. We want to be better at being there for each other. This is a great step towards that.

One last thing: on Tuesday, I told a couple of hundred people some stuff about my childhood that only a handful of people knew before this week. I was surprised by how few people came up to me afterwards. I get a bigger response when I talk about commas and full stops. I wasn’t upset. I thought I must have said too much, freaked people out, misjudged the tone of the day. But then I got home and found an inbox full of LinkedIn messages of people telling me I was brave, offering support and telling me about their own struggles. I’m still getting new messages every day. When people stay silent, it doesn’t mean they don’t care. They just might be finding it hard to speak up. You almost certainly have more sources of support than you think you do.

Other things you might like