In the UK, Mental Health Awareness month has just ended and in the US Mental Health Awareness month is also at a close. As an advocate of this topic and, in particular, practical ways you can look after your mind; I wanted draw upon my own experiences and explore how corporates literally need to change their own thinking around the subject of Mental Health in the workplace.
In 2013 I began the slippery slope towards a nervous breakdown (the subject of another blog post) whilst working in a highly demanding corporate role. As much of my own personal challenges were centred around anxiety and a very poor sense of self worth; having to talk to my HR department about these issues was a massive demon to confront. Consequently when I finally did make the step; I had already left it way too long. Please don’t make the same mistakes as me. Read on.
Utter the phrase “Mental Health” and you’ll still many HR professionals breaking into a cold sweat and running for the hills. Having had first hand experience of how poorly and insensitively this subject can be approached by employers; I deliberated long and hard about writing this set of posts (for fear of being seen to be “corporate bashing” or simply looking bitter). Indeed I was angry/bitter/frustrated for a significant time after I left my last role but sooner or later you just learn to let that shit go and move on. Given that; I’m hopeful that I can approach this topic with an unbiased degree of objectivity, throw open the doors and just let some fresh air in.
This series of four monthly blogs is designed to get both employees and employers thinking about how they can shift their behaviours in the work environment and encourage a climate of positive mental health. But before we get onto the role employers need to play, part one and two of this series, deal with those things you can do from the absolute get-go, to protect your mental health and avoid a crisis later.
#1 Be Custodian of your Time. Now listen to this and listen well because it is one of the most important pieces of advice that I can give to you and if you honour it, you will truly be protecting your sanity. Now, I can take a fair guess that anyone who works in a corporate role has a contract that is based upon “hours necessary to do the job” as opposed to a set weekly amount. Basically this gives employers license (should they wish) to run roughshod all over your personal time, give you an unreasonable workload and bombard you with emails out of hours. Trust me, I know. In most of my field-based roles I routinely worked from 7am sending emails before getting in my car and driving hundreds of miles, before getting back home and then working on reports and emails late into the night. It was just what you did and was endemic across the industry and every single employer I worked for in a field-based role. Just when you thought that you’d gotten everything done, the red light started flashing on your BlackBerry at 11pm and there was an email from your Boss, asking for yet another report (or criticising one you’d done) and you would fall into bed unable to sleep because your brain was still whirring and you felt stressed out.
This is total and utter madness for many reasons but here are the most important ones. Firstly, a big part of mental health is tied up in our identity, purpose and sense of self worth. If you have no life outside of work because you are always “on” then you are headed for serious issues with your relationships, sanity and well-being. If all you are is your job then you’ll soon be a very lonely and unfulfilled individual. I’ve been that person and – by the way – you’re a total buzz-kill. You need time in the evenings to “wind-down” and focus on things that you enjoy – outside of work. Things that bring you joy and feed your soul. Whether it’s attending a class, spending time with your kids, pets or going for a run – do something that is “for you”. Otherwise you will lose a chunk of your weekend in just trying to decompress and won’t enter the new week refreshed. And thus begins the slippery slope to burnout. You become stuck on the treadmill and given the rate of knots you’re running at, it’s damn hard to get off.
Secondly, it is down to you to set boundaries in your life whether it is in a job, relationship or otherwise. This is no more pertinent than when it comes to your time and the value you place upon it. If you don’t set some house rules from the start, you can fully expect your work colleagues to trample all over them. And that’s not them being horrible by the way; that’s just human nature.
Yes, on the surface you might have a great salary package but is it so great if you total up the hours you actually work per week? Is that the value you place upon yourself? If you have been working since 7am, it is perfectly reason to turn off your computer or switch off your phone at 6pm should you so wish and without feeling guilty. Yes, there will always be exceptions – the end of a sales period or a report that has a deadline – but they should be just that – exceptions. It’s hard to believe but your employer will not cease to exist should you decide not to work past 7pm. I know, what a shocker. People will soon get the message if you do not answer your phone or respond beyond a certain time and they will just have to deal with that. Bad luck on them if they have nothing else to do quite frankly. Your company does not own you 24 hours a day, so don’t ever give it the impression it does, by being dismissive over your personal time. It is your responsiblity and your responsibiluty alone to be custodian of your time: not that of your employer.
#2 Be Assertive. This is such an important skill, I believe they should teach it in schools. Assertiveness is the ability to communicate your wants and needs in a calm, confident and unambiguous manner, without the need for confrontation. Whether it is asking for a pay-rise or simply getting your viewpoint heard, this behaviour will have many advantages in the workplace. Your colleagues will not only respect you but will value your contributions, efforts and time much more. Most importantly; they won’t take advantage of you (intentionally or otherwise).
Unfortunately, much of the British psyche is tied up politeness and “keeping a stiff upper lip” (i.e. putting a lid on your desires and emotions) and this means very often we end up putting the demands and feelings of others before ourselves. This is no more prevalent than at work and where we don’t want to be seen as ‘selfish’ or ‘unhelpful’. That’s all very well and good but this outlook does not lend itself to good mental health or living an authentic life.
Here’s why. If you continually just “put up and shut up” in ANY situation (personal life, work or otherwise) you will not be living life on your terms but conversely, those of others – your employer included. Behaving in this way will zap you of your self worth and leave you feeling inwardly angry, bitter and frustrated. Generally speaking, people who do this for a long period of time, end up reverting to a choice of two other unhelpful behaviours – aggressiveness or passive aggressiveness. This means they will either end up having a total meltdown and verbally lashing out or alternatively; become a smiling assassin (someone who outwardly seems agreeable but behind closed doors will do everything they can to sabotage the people or situations they are unhappy about). I’m pretty certain you’ll agree these are not people you’d like to spend time with or work with yourself, so don’t become one and learn how to be assertive in all areas of your life.
Being a martyr serves no purpose whatsoever. There is a very good reason why they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on in a crisis. Put simply, you cannot put yourself in a position to help anyone, if you don’t get your own side of the street tidy first.
#3 Know your motivation. Is this really the job for you? Is this really the industry for you? Are these the people you want as your colleagues? Seriously, is it? Are they? Here’s the thing – that promotion you want (and have worked so hard for), might look great on paper, carry a great salary and rewards package but it still doesn’t mean you’ll actually enjoy doing it. You can have all the experience to do a particular job but not the mindset, motivation or personality and that is a big problem. And yet companies still consistently concentrate on skill set (which can be taught) and not on whether the individual is a good fit and will be – god forbid – happy in that job.
By way of an explanation: there were certain roles I did in corporate that I truly loved and others I did not. I just blindly threw myself into everything that came my way (without really knowing what I was aiming for), working ridiculously hard and going for promotions whenever they became available. It was only when I finally exited the corporate environment altogether, that I realised I’m not actually a very good employee! I was great in jobs that were new or hadn’t previously existed (and that I could creatively use my industry experience in) but I felt stifled in jobs where the approach was very much a “prescriptive” one and with little room for breaking the mould.
Get to know your primary motivation. I guarantee that the things that will keep you fulfilled in a job, will not be the car, the salary or the hotel honours points and air miles. Primarily, what will keep you happy is feeling you have a purpose in your role and that you are making a difference. Did you know that a sense of purpose is one of the top five basic fundamental human needs? So, before you take any job, make sure you ask yourself the difficult questions. Otherwise you might just end up some place you really don’t want to be….and without an obvious exit strategy.
#4 Establish Morning and Evening Rituals. Just as you power up your ‘phone when it is low on battery, it’s important that you recharge your own batteries and if you find a way to do this on a daily basis; you will make a big step to avoiding burnout. Having an am ritual will help set the scene and focus your mind for the day ahead. The purpose of an evening routine will be in allowing yourself to slow things down and calm the mind before you go to sleep.
My own personal recommendation would be to meditate for at least ten minutes in the morning and before you start your working day. Allowing yourself to sit quietly and focus on your breathing for a short time every day will control your mental chatter and allow your brain to tackle problems much more efficiently. Extending your meditation for longer will enable you to include affirmations and visualisations, which in turn will embed themselves into your subconscious. This action makes your ambitions and goals much more deeply-rooted and as a result; you are more likely to find ways of making them happen.
But they don’t call meditation a practice for nothing. Initially, you will find it extremely difficult and your mind will wander – but if you stick with it, I promise you, the benefits will be significant and you will find yourself wanting to meditate for longer periods of time. Almost all successful business leaders have a meditation practice of some sort (Tony Robbins calls it ‘priming’) and there are quite literally thousands of guided tutorials available on You Tube, so you’ll have no problems finding one that works for you.
If this whole meditation thing sound a bit woo-woo for you, then just sit quietly with your cup of tea or coffee (no tech) and simply visualise the day ahead. Ultimately, what we are looking to avoid here is simply charging into your day like the proverbial bull in the china shop. This is all about setting aside a few minutes in the morning, in order to centre yourself and think about how you want the next sixteen or so hours to unfold. Put like that, doesn’t it make perfect sense?
In terms of an evening ritual; we want to establish a period of thirty minutes to one hour before going to bed and to actively wind down for the day, without distractions such as phones, tablets or TV. So ditch anything – reading material included – that is going to stimulate your grey matter and keep you awake once the lights go out. This is particularly important to ‘phones and tablets with ‘blue light’.
Your evening routine could be taking a bath, doing a meditation reflecting on your day and what you were grateful for (don’t dwell on negatives) or both. Again, there are some great guided meditations for bedtime which focus specifically on gratitude and bringing the day to a positive close. Allowing yourself to “power down” gradually will set you on the path to a much more restful sleep and a more positive outlook when you awaken .
Try to ensure you have set times for rising and retiring – it will be much easier to ‘programme’ your mind and body and get into patterns that work for you.
#5. Be present and ditch the tech. Your ‘phone is not an extension of you and if it is, you cannot be present in your personal interactions with people. So ask yourself – “Do I really need to take this ‘phone into my meeting?”. If you are constantly checking your mobile throughout the day; you are attacking your brain with stimulus from multiple directions, which in itself, is highly stressful.
Give yourself set times in the day to check and respond to emails, texts or ‘phone calls and stick to them. Working in this way will make you much more effective and less prone to go off at tangents because you will be focused on whatever is your priority at that time. Whether it is a meeting or a date night dinner, put the ‘phone away and be present for the person or persons opposite you. I guarantee they will notice the difference it makes and consequently they are much more likely to treat you as a priority.
This goes for bedtime and when you wake up – only on these occasions YOU are the main event. Put yourself first at the beginning and end of the day and do not look at your ‘phone for at least thirty minutes when you awake and leave it out of the bedroom completely when you go to sleep. This is your ‘me’ time so don’t tolerate interruptions.
I really hope you found this blog post helpful. Next month we’ll explore five more ways to prevent burnout from the beginning but if you really like what we’ve covered here, can I suggest that you follow Arianna Huffington who is pretty much re-writing the rule book on work-life balance and how to thrive in life.
Live well. Laney x
At the beginning of 2017, I put a post on my personal Facebook page. This post was about my nervous breakdown in 2013 and basically how we shouldn’t stigmatise or feel embarrassed about discussing mental illness. There was a chain of events and reasons that led me to make this post – none of which are important anymore. As I don’t generally post a lot of personal stuff on social media; I was completely staggered by the responses and support I was met with, following my admission. As clearly mental health is an issue that is far reaching and will probably touch all of us in some way or another during our lifetime; it was important to me that – as a women’s lifestyle blog – this site should cover the topic; along with the other more “fluffy” stuff.
To start; my observation is that we live in a world of self-help pollution. Simply checking my Facebook every day uncovers a new “life coach” espousing their own particular brand of wellness. The market is fast becoming saturated and the pressure to be happy/together/successful/fulfilled has never been more apparent. Now don’t get me wrong; I love a good Guru as much as the next hot mess – one look at my Kindle library will tell you that – but for some people; they’re simply not ready to take that trip. For many out there, there’s a more important journey they need to take first – the journey to recognition. Recognition that there’s something very, very wrong in their life. Recognition that they’re not feeling right. Recognition that they’re not coping. This is that story.
So, leading on from that point, just what make me so qualified to write this? Well you asked, so here goes. I. AM. A. FUCK. UP. Yep, you read that right – I’m a fuck up. So, sue me. The truth is we all are in some way or another but sometimes our poor behaviours and choices get the better of us. When this happens, the biggest favour you can do yourself is admit it – because that my friend; puts you in the unique position to actually do something about it……
How it all started for me.
In 2013 things started to unravel for me in a fairly dramatic way. Truth is, they’d actually been pretty shitty for quite some time but as one of life’s “copers” (let’s change that to martyr shall we), I had become very good at shoving a lid on my unhappiness ……correction…..FEAR. To summarise; since 2008, I had been on a rollercoaster of life changing events – a serious back injury followed by a diagnosis of Fibromyalgia, death of a stepdaughter followed shortly thereafter by a marriage separation and inevitable divorce. I had moved my life 300 miles from Cheshire to Scotland, pretty much on a whim. I had no support network and no friends. As well as the emotional impact of the marriage separation; the financial element was shattering. So, to numb the pain, I dove into work. I was a Regional Manager in the Motor Industry and my job took me all over Northern Ireland and Scotland. I worked with some amazing people and I worked extremely hard, often arriving back from the ferry port on a Friday night at 11pm and working through the weekend on reports. I was permanently tired and was not sleeping properly….but at this point was coping….just. Slowly, insidiously, a voice started creeping into the picture. A voice telling me that I wasn’t good enough. That I was actually terrible at my job. That I was a fraud. That I’d be found out.
Obviously, feeling this way was the perfect time to move into a new role – a more demanding role – but I did it anyway – “feel the fear and face it anyway” and all of the crap we tell ourselves to justify our crazy decisions. I realised pretty much immediately I had made a HUGE mistake. Having had a really great relationship with my previous boss, from the outset, I just knew I’d made a serious error of judgment in deciding to work for my new one. We were completely different people and just not a “good fit”.
By this time, I was in pretty bad shape both emotionally and physically. I was SO paralysed with fear and a terrible sense of foreboding, that I just wasn’t sleeping. At all. I was convinced that another life-changing drama was just around the corner and I was powerless to do anything about it. Every work meeting I attended was preceded by a pep talk to try and calm the sense of dread and inadequacy I felt. This was crazy considering I was highly qualified for the role with over twenty years’ experience within the industry; but nonetheless I felt like a total imposter. To add injury to insult, my damaged back was permanently in spasm from all the driving and the nerve compression was giving me a numb right leg. Just to get through the day I was shovelling pain killers down my neck at an alarming rate. Despite all of this my “game face” was nailed tightly one but I was dying inside. I felt like a rat on a wheel, just peddling mindlessly along whilst everything unravelled around me. But I had no idea of how to stop the ride and get off.
And then my second step-daughter died. Suddenly and without warning. I’d had to deal with the news a few months earlier that my ex-husband had been in hospital for several weeks and had nearly died, without anyone telling me (they had their reasons I guess). Having only seen Rebecca five weeks prior to her death, it was surreal and six years on it still shocks me. After the funeral, I returned straight to work, still racked with the same fear, still feeling inadequate and still working for a person I had nothing in common with and who wasn’t interested in supporting me. Nonetheless, I kept lying to myself that it would all be okay…..somehow. However, on top of all of this; I was now grieving.
Having not had a romantic relationship since my divorce and now feeling very much alone, I decided to cheer myself up by dating (seriously, WTF was I thinking). To my total and utter surprise, I met someone who I really liked and things moved quickly. Although ideally, I wanted to take things slow, I kept telling myself “ Laney, you’ve had your share of shit, what could possibly go wrong?” and to be fair, for a while, it was lovely. It took the edge off the pain I was feeling and gave me something else to focus on other than grief and work. However, coupled with that rosy tinted glow we all cast on a new relationship; was a sense of feeling overwhelmed and mixed up about just how quickly things were moving. This just added to my inner turmoil ultimately. A few months down the line and in January 2013, I came to the unfortunate realisation that this person was not right for me and I ejected him fairly brutally from my life. “Expose the wound” I thought “hurts like hell for a while but the fresh air helps it heal.” (I’m just full of these gems, right?) Although this was absolutely the right decision to make; by this time I was too emotionally battered and bruised to deal with the fallout…..and this brings us to when shit really started to go sideways….
I decided to talk to my work about how I was feeling and get some CBT sessions. Whilst they (work) outwardly made all the appropriate gestures of support; you could tell that inwardly, they just wished I’d miraculously get “better” and fall back into line….. and boy, I tried. I really tried. But, by now, I was too far gone. I was quite literally, “wired to the moon” through lack of sleep, fear and popping prescription pills like smarties. I estimated that I hadn’t had more than three hours sleep a night for over eighteen months. I felt like I was outside of my life looking in; banging on the window for someone…ANYONE… to notice I was in trouble. Something had to give. And it did. In the middle of a team meeting to be precise. Having spent the whole morning staring and nodding at the obligatory PowerPoint presentation slides, bit by bit a wave of total panic began to overpower me until I quietly excused myself, went into the ladies, lock myself in a cubicle, lay on the floor and sobbed for about twenty minutes.
What happened next?
Around thirty minutes I managed to compose myself and returned to the team meeting. I must have looked like crap when I sat back down but no-one acknowledged the fact or bothered to ask how I was. I should have been upset, but actually, it didn’t matter to me anymore. For the first time in ages; I had clarity. I needed to stop trying to do the right thing and to look after myself. No-one else was going to. So, I signed myself off – initially for a month. However, it soon became clear that if I was going to get better; returning to that job was not an option for me. And then some game changers: an interview with an Occupational Health Therapist (who clearly didn’t think I was a fraud), a formal and proper diagnosis of my back injury and most importantly, a conversation with my CBT counsellor at The Priory who suggested I attend “Group” therapy, as it was covered by my work insurance policy anyway.
For three months I attended Group CBT sessions and I have to say it was the best thing I ever did. Group therapy allows you to explore the individual elements of cognitive behaviour therapy more in-depth and replace unhelpful coping strategies and learned behaviours with ones that serve you better. It makes you dig deep and at times is exhausting. Mental Health is an inside job and you have to want to do the work. It also makes you drop any preconceptions you had about the type of person that suffers with mental illness and why someone chooses a particular coping strategy or unhelpful behaviour over another.
Now, I was immensely fortunate to get the help that I did and not everyone will be so lucky, I understand that. However, mental health is gaining more and more awareness and less and less of a stigma. More and more help and resources are becoming available. In sharing my story; I can’t tell you how many people came forward to tell me they’d struggled too at some point – people I have known for ages yet had NO IDEA about their experience with this issue. Here’s the truth. Life has never been tougher: we’re all working longer hours than ever and the advent of the internet and social media means we are literally ambushed with stimuli twenty- four seven. Given humans weren’t designed to cope with the bombardment of the twenty first century lifestyle; we need to learn (and practice) coping strategies that work for us.
Everyone’s experience of a mental health issue is different and personal to them. My Boss made the idiotic remark that I wasn’t having a nervous breakdown because “my mother had one and it was nothing like you say.” We must never fall into the trap of labelling how something should look. For me, my issues were anxiety related – most likely exacerbated by a succession of major life events within a relatively short time frame. I had become so expectant of the next “trauma” that I was in a constant state of alert (fight or flight mode, basically) resulting in massively heightened anxiety and unhelpful thinking patterns (catastrophising) and ultimately lack of sleep. Conversely, one of my closest friends is clinically depressed – a trait that runs in the family. She can have months of happiness when bang! out of nowhere, a black cloud descends and literally, immobilises her. She’ll hide under the duvet for days and ignore ‘phone calls and messages, until the blackness lifts. Although I used to get terribly concerned about the radio silence, I now realise it’s her process and we have a system for handling it.
Clearly, this is a huge topic and consequently, there are a couple of follow up articles I’m already writing as an add-on to this post. I’d also welcome any stories that you might like to share – if so, please get in touch or add your comments in the thread below. In closing though, if you or anyone you know is struggling or has struggled with your mood; I hope you’ll take the following from this article.