By James Martin, Bid Manager and Sales Support for European Sales at Enterprise.
This is who I am
Yes, I am normal. That is what I have come to realise during the course of the last 7 years. I am not the odd one out, I am not crazy and I am not incompetent, consigned to a scrapheap by ignorance. I am a man with mental ill health, who sometimes thrives with my depression and anxiety and who sometimes just survives.
But I have not always felt normal. As it turns out, I had my first brush with depression more than 25 years ago, whilst studying at university but I just did not understand it at the time. There were all the classic feelings: failure, worthlessness and the pervading sadness and emptiness. I was not like my friends, happy and outgoing. I did not see myself as normal. I was odd.
It was 7 years ago that things finally came to a head; that I reached rock bottom. I was overwhelmed, my anxiety was off the scale and suicidal thoughts were coming regularly. I was in crisis. Fortunately, my family intervened and I genuinely believe saved my life. My GP was fantastic and got me proper treatment. I was off work for 6 months with this severe depressive episode but it was a turning point for me. I had begun to understand that this was an illness and something that I could fight, as I would a physical illness. I also realised that I was not odd. I am the 1 in 4 who experience a mental health problem in any year.
Yes indeed, I am normal.
Mental Health and the workplace
It is commonly agreed that work plays a very important role in promoting and maintaining positive mental health and I certainly endorse that view. I returned to work full time and have been in work without any relapse for the past 7 years. My illness does not stop me from working; rather it helps me to manage my illness better. Work provides structure, keeps me occupied, gives me a sense of achievement and helps me recognise that failures are a part of all our lives.
It is not always easy (sometimes the depression and anxiety make it very difficult) but it is crucial to my well-being. What is more, I am also good at my job, capable of dealing with the pressures of my role and an asset to my company. What I certainly am not is unemployable, a burden or worthless.
Ah, the challenge we all face, more so now than ever. How do I remain productive, whilst ensuring that I take care of myself and cope with pressure and responsibility? Well, it is no different for me than anyone else. I don’t ask for any special treatment and I want to be judged by the same standards. Being my own harshest critic has its own challenges, so I utilise different tools to ensure my productivity is as good as it can be.
Tool, techniques and resources
Over the years I have developed a number of techniques and resources that help me in the workplace. There has been some trial and error on the way but I now have a good understanding of what works and what does not.
Some of the items below might also work for you:
CBT techniques – this helps to combat the negative thoughts and prevent relapses.
Take time to relax – Winding down is essential. E-mails and phone calls are responded to during office hours. Holidays are a time to unwind and recharge – they are not a work from home (or beach) opportunity!
Mindfulness – Being present in the moment helps my concentration and productivity as well as preventing my catastrophizing.
Being honest with myself – I know if I am struggling and I admit it; it is not failure.
Be open – I have found the more that I talk about mental health, the more people understand and the easier it gets. However, do make sure that you are secure and safe before considering sharing to a wider audience.
Take regular breaks – My concentration is improved if I divide my time properly. Time management is very important.
Get outside – A change of scenery (especially getting outside) helps to refresh me, especially at lunch.
Exercise regularly – This has been a recent and very welcome addition to my armoury. A simple walk, running, yoga, there are so many options.
Use support groups / charities. ‘Time to Change’ and ‘Mind’ have been excellent resources. There are many local organisations that provide great support.
Take care of yourself – Sounds simple but I have to work at this! It is about knowing your limits and listening to yourself and those around you.
The above is not an exhaustive list by any means. Discover what works for you, there are so many options. It may take some time and it is a constant evolution but I can guarantee it will be well worth the effort.
Being open about mental health
You will see in the list above I have included ‘Be Open’, along with a cautionary note. I have felt a responsibility to be open about my mental health, so that others do not feel as isolated as I did at that time. I rejected and pushed people away because I did not want to burden them or thought that they might ‘run a mile’. As a result, I have lost friendships and hurt people, the very people who would have provided me with the support I needed.
Being open has taught me some valuable lessons and has aided my ability to thrive. My being open about my mental health, especially at work, has meant that more people have been willing to listen and engage in conversations, providing me a network that is empathetic and compassionate.
How to seek support
Depending on individual circumstances, of course, your family and friends are the most important support network; use them! Support at work is also important. A chat is often all that is needed when having a rough day. I have a fantastic manager and some great colleagues who know my issues and who are willing to lend an ear as and when needed. Don’t forget 1 in 4 of us experience mental ill health in a year, so there are many people who understand. It is a good start to discuss with colleagues you trust first.
At Enterprise we are taking this further and implementing an official network of mental health advocates and allies as part of our signing of the Time to Change Employers Pledge. This will make seeking support even easier for our employees and help us to break down barriers more quickly.
Is culture changing?
In short, YES! While the stigma surrounding mental health has not disappeared yet, the more that it is talked about, the more people who are willing to come forward and say “yes, I have a mental illness” and the more high profile campaigns there are, such as Time to Change and Heads Together, the quicker it will become a normal part of everyday life.
What to look for in a progressive employer
This is a simple one from my perspective. Companies who have a robust diversity policy are a good first step in looking for progressive employers. More than 500 organisations have signed an Employers Pledge for Time to Change and have therefore committed to help eradicate the stigma around mental health; these organisations are certainly worth a look.
As well as formal policies, look for employers who have flexible working arrangements, those with active employee committees and wellbeing groups as they will be more in tune with looking after their employees and being open on mental health. There are many such organisations out there and finding them is not as challenging as it used to be, because attitudes are evolving all the time. It is now up to us to continue this evolution, as agents for change in organisations, to rid the stigma once and for all.