World Mental Health Day: stories from Connor

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By Kate Keaney

10 Oct 2019

Today is World Mental Health Day; a day to educate people and raise awareness of mental health issues, in a bid to tackle the ongoing stigma that can exist around mental health. 

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At Connor we are always talking to clients about how their people are the magical ingredient in their success. In the UK, one in six workers will experience depression, anxiety or problems relating to stress at any one time, and it is calculated that mental ill health could cost organisations anywhere between £34.9 and £99 billion every year. Even more interesting is that, while one in five people have taken a day off due to stress, 90 per cent of those people gave a different reason for their absence. 

In this blog, we want to help open up the conversation around mental health – so that hopefully, in future, fewer people feel the need to make up a reason why they are struggling, and fewer people struggle for as long with their mental health. Because as we hope the stories below show, mental health can challenge anyone, any time, and in a variety of ways. 

Sam: work can be a lifeline for dealing with mental health challenges 

“A number of years ago, I got out of a very bad marriage. I thought I was coping in the months that followed – but then one day at work I was told about a relatively minor change to my role, and I unexpectedly went to pieces. 

It was like a black fog came over me; I felt absolutely worthless, like I had nothing left at all. I started becoming exceptionally needy around my friends, but at the same time cut myself off from my family. Work was the only place that made me feel safe, so I desperately wanted to be there, but I just couldn’t function at work at all. I remember at the lowest point I sat in my chair at home from Friday, and didn’t move until Sunday. I just couldn’t pull myself together.

For me, work became my lifeline. I’ve always been a person who values loyalty, compassion and trust – in this period of my life, Connor reflected those qualities straight back at me. The senior leadership was extremely compassionate, and if I needed time off to manage my health, it was granted with no questions asked. Not everyone at work knew what was going on – but everyone treated me with such kindness and compassion. At the same time, I wasn’t wrapped up in cotton wool – work still needed to be done, and I found that work gave me an infrastructure and a sense of normality that I needed. At the time I wasn’t really able to open up to my own family, so Connor became my family and still is to this day. And with their support, I started to recover.

Nowadays I am coping much better and feel empowered to help others – I made the decision to be brave enough to share some of my experiences to encourage others to talk if they feel able to do so – and to recognise that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I have had tough times since this period, and all of those things together have forced me to focus on myself – what I need, what I want, and what makes me happy. 

I now live in an area that is good for me, I have a home that I treasure, and I continue to surround myself with those colleagues who became dear friends, who helped me through the dark times. 

If I was to offer advice to anyone going through the same things as I did, it would be the following: 

  • It might sound daft – but take time to just sit and breathe. It’s amazing when you’re in crisis how constricted you become. Making time to sit and just breathe really does make a difference when you’re in that state. 
  • Learn to be selfish and kind to yourself. Listen to what your body and mind need – and if that’s to get out of the office, or to leave the house, or to talk to someone, then do it. 
  • When you are ready to come back to work, talk to your colleagues and managers. You don’t need to pour your heart out to them – but let them know how you are doing. It’s a long road to recovery sometimes, and if others know how you are doing – on the good days and the bad – they can be more supportive. 
  • It sounds scary – but you won’t come back from a mental health crisis as the same person. You’ll be a new person with new experiences. Use them wisely. It took me a long time to realise, for example, that blaming other people for the way I felt was unhealthy and frankly, not good for the soul. I am accountable for my own feelings and emotions, and that is incredibly empowering!”   

Sue: my experience of managing employees with mental health issues 

“I once had a report who was really struggling with their mental health. Initially they thought it was depression, but as time progressed it became apparent that they were also dealing with psychological disorders 

As this person’s line manager, the thing I found most challenging was walking the line between doing the right thing as a human being and doing the right thing for the business. I felt a strong sense of responsibility towards this person and I was desperate to help and support them as they struggled. But as time went on, the individual became increasingly unable to work. Often, they weren’t able to be in the office due to anxiety, deadlines were missed, and eventually they had to take large amounts of time off.  

In my own role, I found myself increasingly under pressure from a number of angles. Initially, when nobody else knew what the person was going through, I had to deal with lots of frustrated colleagues who wanted to know why work wasn’t getting done. As time went on and the individual took time off, I found I was spending a lot of time hiring, training, and managing temporary staff to cover the gaps – and taking on the work that couldn’t be outsourced to a temp in order to keep things moving. While of course my own stress was nothing on the scale of my report’s, it did end up becoming a difficult time for me as well as I found myself expending my own energy to keep things together. 

From my experience, I would offer any line manager going through a similar thing the following advice: 

  • Remember to honour your own self-care as well as your direct reports – this is often harder than you think. There’s always a strong pull in an organisation to move quickly, and to go the extra mile. But if you aren’t looking after yourself, then you can’t be in the best position to do your work well, to look after your reports when they are struggling, or to help them manage their workload. 
  • Talk about the situation as soon as you can with a trusted advisor – either in or out of the organisation. Having someone who you can confide in and get guidance from is enormously helpful. I wish I had spoken to an HR expert much earlier in the process to help myself feel more comfortable with what I should do. Don’t delay in the hope the situation will just go away on its own. 
  • Access counselling support as soon as possible. Not only for the person going through the mental health challenges – but for yourself as well. I am convinced that everyone on the planet would benefit from counselling; it’s always so valuable to talk things through with an independent and trusted expert. That’s especially true when supporting someone through mental health challenges.”  

Jesshow depression, anxiety and OCD have affected my day-to-day life 

Depression, anxiety and OCD have been part of my life for the best part of 30 years. Repetitive thoughts have paralysed me on many occasions and rendered me pretty much useless at times. 

From a personal viewpoint, I have had an incredible support network of family and friends who have helped me through the most challenging days. Those that have just been there to listen or be my shoulder to cry on, those that have brought food because I've not had the capacity to shop and cook for myself, and those that understand when I disappear for a couple of months, that it’s not personal and we can pick up our friendship where we left off.  

On the flipside, I've also had the experience of losing friends because they just can't see behind the sadness of a moment.  

In a work capacity, I have been extremely lucky to have (on the most part) understanding managers and flexibility to have a good work and personal life blend. I haven’t had time off work due to mental health in the last few years but there was a time when I was off for over six months. I was in a real crisis. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t work but at the time, I could barely get myself a drink without really concentrating on every single aspect of what I needed to do.  

I was always in touch with work. My manager would text me as I found phone calls tricky. He was very supportive and eventually he helped enable me to feel confident enough to return to work, which I did. 

In this current moment, I feel like I have fallen on my feet. I am happy. Amongst the chaos of life, my head feels clear of any issues. It's hard to think of how bad things can get when it's like this. But I am ALWAYS aware of how quickly things can turn. I have strategies in place to keep me feeling positive, but I also have strategies for the times when things aren’t so good. 

If I could offer one piece of advice to anyone going through anything similar, it would be: Be kind to yourself. If managing to get up and showered looks like a win for you then bask in the glory of fresh pants on that day. If you've managed to be at work for an entire week without crying, then celebrate with a cup of tea and some biscuits. Our self-talk, the little voice in our heads, the way we treat ourselves, is so very important to our self-esteem and confidence and yet we spend so little time nurturing it.  

Julia: supporting a loved one with a mental health problem 

“I was in a relationship with a guy who had a long history of mental illness. He had faced depression through most of his life, which had unfortunately been exacerbated by a very challenging divorce and home life, and he was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. 

When he was up, he was highly creative and adventurous, with a thirst for life that was infectious. We did things that I would never have otherwise done – including launching our own art exhibition! He made me feel incredibly special and lucky to be with him. 

This contrasted dramatically with the low moments. In those times, he would go completely within himself. He wouldn’t show any interest in me, and often social anxiety kept him from connecting with others. In the darkest of moments, day-to-day practicalities like washing and eating went out the window. 

For me, this meant a highly unpredictable life. I rarely knew what I would be walking into when I got home; whether we’d have a wonderful evening of fun socialising, or whether I might have to take on somewhat of a parent mode or simply clear plans to give him the space he needed. Thankfully, as my employer was happy for me to be flexible, this didn’t intrude too much into my working life – but if I needed to go and pick up his children, for example, I might have to rearrange meetings or other work to accommodate. 

For me, the biggest challenge was remaining resilient. In the low moments, I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t about me, and not to try and ‘fix’ things but to simply provide a safe environment for him to be in, and to let him know that he was loved. It required forgiveness and patience, both for ourselves and each other, and it was often hard to know if I was doing the best thing at any one time! 

If someone else is supporting a loved one who is struggling with mental health, I would offer them the following advice: 

  • Seek time and support from your friends and family – people who will listen to you and who will not judge how you’re feeling. It’s important to have an opportunity to offload, or to get advice, and depression can make people very inward-focused – so you may not get always get the attention and interest that you need from your loved one who is struggling. Others can give you a different perspective and give you some of the things you may not be getting from your relationship when your partner isn’t able to give you those things at that time. 
  • Find people who will re-energise you when you need a boost. Being in a close relationship with someone who is depressed can sometimes deplete your energy, in those times when you need to step up and take on a greater emotional and practical load in order to keep life ticking, and you need to stay at your best in order to remain supportive and look after yourself properly, and be at your best for them. For me this was close friends, and my partner’s parents, who really understood the situation. I also just needed my own time sometimes – a country walk or a mooch around some vintage shops. 
  • Remember the good times when it feels tough. My partner was a unique and special person; in my experience many people who struggle with ongoing mental health problems are. He was particularly creative and expressive in his art and music as he brought many of his own emotions and experiences to this. If you take the time to connect with them and understand their worldview, the rewards can be rich. Though I’m no longer with the man in question, we are both friends and I am very glad that he’s in my life. He’s one of a kind.

Connor Associate: moving beyond platitudes to action 

“I woke up on the morning of my first day as a self-employed consultant, on the first day of a new six-month project with a charity for six months, to find my husband was gone. No note, no trace, no clothes - gone. Suddenly a single parent and all security lost, two children to support, mortgage to pay, and a client whose charity specialised in an area much too close to home… it felt like a seriously bad joke, life suddenly lost a lot of its charm. I had no choice but to get up, get dressed and try to function each day. 

My work was of course affected. I felt I had to push on through and keep coping for my children’s sake. I didn’t remember one conversation to the next, and even now I don’t really remember how I survived each day, nor how the many didn’t notice 

Unfortunately, at the time I wasn’t as well supported as I needed to be. I was in a very lonely place, personally and professionally. I was self-employed, a single parent, and it seemed that everyone around me only really noticed how I was coping when it impacted them, their performance or that of those they served, which put further pressure on me to maintain the swan-like façade! 

Otherwise, I would hear a lot of well-meaning but hollow-feeling platitudes; “if there’s anything I can do…?” “Let me know what you need” “just give us a shout…” “Are you okay?” which I would respond to with a polite smile, and the equally hollow-feeling “much appreciated”, “that’s very kind” and my favourite “thank you.” 

The truth behind the “Thank you” was loaded with upset, anger and the feeling of “why me?”. This was not the life I had planned, built oworked towards. “They” asked the question, yet in reality their life carried on. Even when I caught up with someone for a coffee, a kind visit, or weekend scheduled into busy diaries to see me and the kids wasn’t really sustained beyond the fleeting moment they had stopped to notice, and then life carried on.

Then, something happened. I joined a new group of associates and one of them, who I had known for only a few days, noticed me. They noticed something wasn’t right and caught me just before I dropped. They listened, and rather than responding with shock, pity, and hollow words, they saw a way to help and they did. 

They gave me a new client, they took the other (the charity which was now such a struggle for me), they helped me to plan and simplify my working life. They stepped in and did all the things that a normal functioning me would be able to do. But most importantly, they made no fuss, there was no praise or parade about help or adjustments, no recognition for helping a colleague in need. They simply did what was needed and discreetly stepped in and took a few barriers away, which made functioning and life that bit easier through those harder momentsIt gave me the space, to find other sources of help to start down the road to rebuild.

Now a year on, they have my loyalty, admiration and complete dedication to supporting their organisation.

I had myself pegged as a pretty resilient, strong, independent woman when this happened. Hardened through learnings, through life and my early career in corporate warfare (or what it felt like at the time – and I loved it), I was determined to succeed and make it through this too. 

But this, which I peg as one of life’s “suckier moments” was not something I could “push through” alone. It really has expanded my horizons and helped me build my resilience to life’s challenges further (combined with the right support to deal with them and a helping hand to move forward) and learn that there is no shame in saying you are not coping and you do need help!

So a few learnings I can share from my time in the shadows, (and please know all are different), but if you see someone going through something: 

  • Show up! And keep showing up. Be wary of becoming the bystander with platitudes like “let me know if I can help.” Think about what you can do, even if that’s just listening and being a constant in their chaos.  
  • Remove a challenge before it becomes a challenge (if you can). How can you take the pressure off at work? If it’s not within your power (or ability) to do something, can you help to find someone who can? 
  • If you have remote workers, or suppliers who work closely with you but aren’t full-time employees, how do you know they’re okay? How can you duplicate those catch ups and coffees that are a great check-in for regular staff? 
  • Create a safe space for people to “confess” that they cannot do it all. Praise and expectation can be a double edged sword!” 

Sarah: battling depression and building confidence 

I went through a divorce that took me completely by surprise – at around the same time as starting a new job building a marketing department from the ground up in a small company. It felt like the ground had been ripped out from under my feet; it was a real struggle to keep myself going, to keep my family going, and to ‘find a solution’ (which, in my mind, was how to cope with everything). 

As a consequence, I ended up depressed. I wasn’t sleeping, I struggled with anxiety, and all of that made it very hard to cope at work. I worked hard to keep this from my employer – it felt like an admission of failure. But I also knew that I wasn’t giving work my best, which upset me too. There was so much to get to grips with and the role was a big stretch for me. I felt I wasn’t giving it enough attention, and it knocked my confidence quite a bit. 

In the end, I told the wife of the MD what was going on – she was a personal friend of mine – and she filled in my boss on what was happening. The way my work responded was interesting. The MD himself found it very difficult to talk to me about it – I think he didn’t really know what to do about it. But the NED was incredibly compassionate and understanding, which was very valuable to me. They were there to talk to me if I needed them, and at the time they also said it would be fine for me to step away from my role if that’s what I needed.  

At the time I was grateful for the offer – but today I do wish they had discussed ways to support me to stay at work. I really wanted to work – it gave me a purpose and something to do with my brain, which was important. Also the work we were doing touched on lots of psychological theories, which felt oddly relevant at the time! 

Nowadays I am pleased to say that things are much better. When I was going through depression I decided to train as a running coach, something that I still do around my work at Connor today. I found that running made an enormous difference to my mental wellbeing, and my confidence. I was incredibly motivated to help others, especially other women, to access the same benefits as me, and that’s how U Can Run started. 

If I were to give someone else in my position advice, it would be:

  • Don’t give up. Believe in yourself – things will work out, and even if it feels absolutely awful right now, it’s important to remember that things will get better 
  • Ask for help. Showing your vulnerable side can bring so much warmth and support. So many people gave me their time and their support once I showed them that I wasn’t OK, and that made an incredible difference to me.
  • Access counselling. It’s brilliant, even if you aren’t depressed – everyone should do it! It helped me to understand why what happened, happened, and how to move forward from it as a stronger person.  

The future is bright

What’s remarkable from all those stories is that, regardless of how bleak things got, they always improved – and the people telling them came out the other side stronger for it. This is one of the crucial reasons why mental health should be talked about more. If it’s stigmatised and not dealt with or discussed, it can be crippling for people and for organisations. But if it is talked about, if people are supported when they are struggling, then everyone wins and everyone can grow. 

So maybe as you go through today, ask yourself: is there anyone in my life that could benefit from some support? How can I help them? Could I benefit from support myself? What do I need right now, and how can I get that support? 

 

 

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