Being open about Mental Health at Work
I was asked to write this article by my employer to be shared in our company intranet for National Inclusion week in September 2017
I class myself as a very lucky and grounded person having spent 17 years as a soldier and coming through it in one piece mentally and physically. Why grounded? Having seen some of the worst things humanity is capable of doing to itself in the name of a cause has really made me appreciate what I have, and how lucky we are to have been born in to, and live in, a moderate, democratic country.
Anyway, why am I writing this piece on mental health at work? Despite having a fairly open, philosophical view of life, I had my world pulled apart last year – I’ll spare you the details – but suffice to say, I was in mental turmoil and I didn’t know what to do. Thankfully I managed to hang on to some of my perspective on life to help keep me straight. That meant that when I was staring in to my personal black hole I had an inner feeling that I knew I would be fine in the end, I just did not know how to get there… That gave me hope and a desire to “fix” myself.
Thankfully I had some experience helping others with mental health problems, having spent the last 6 years talking to former soldiers of mine who are suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The informal help I started to provide all came about by accident when a few guys reached out asking for help. They knew I had no expertise, but that I am a good listener and would listen with an open mind and no judgement. However, they did know that I would happily take the micky out of them; something the NHS wouldn’t dream of doing, and something the guys longed for... Why do I tell you all this now? Because I dug in to that bank of advice I’d given over the years and told myself to put my money where my mouth was… if I didn’t, I’d be a hypocrite!
So there I was staring in to my black hole, thankfully with a glimmer of hope and a burning desire to get better. One of the key bits of advice I’d given was to talk to people. The old adage of a problem shared is a problem halved is so very true. I had only been at SLI for two years, but I had seen other people being looked after by the company and I decided to be open from the start; what did I have to lose. I was more concerned about my mental wellbeing than I was my job and I was in no fit state to be productive anyway. Well, I was amazingly well supported. My manager could not have been more understanding and I found the Solutions website, that I was signposted to by the People Function, very helpful. For an employee that has never been off sick, I was off work for the best part of four weeks. I took the proactive step of telling my GP that I was worried that I might end up depressed, but that I knew I wasn’t and that I did not want any medication, I just wanted them to know how I felt. I also confided in some close friends and family and the combination of work’s support, the GP knowing and the support of those close to me was enough to keep my head up.
This safety net allowed me to search for the answer to my perceived problem. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on about psychology. I was hardly sleeping. I was running every day – it was the only place I really escaped my thoughts. Thankfully my gut instinct told me that turning to drink would not be helpful. I must have read 10-15 books and it was a line in one of those books that helped me see something that changed everything! I’m paraphrasing, but what I heard was “just remember, thoughts aren’t real and you don’t need to react to them”! Boom! I just laughed out loud – earning a few odd looks on the train – I thought “you’re an idiot, you’ve been doing this to yourself!”
Seeing that innocently believing my thoughts were real and then trying to analyse them to pieces was the cause of my mental turmoil was huge! I realised that I had been attributing my thoughts to something outside of my control, that I was seeing them as reality and that reality was making me feel a certain way; that I was a prisoner of my thoughts. How amazing to realise that we can only experience life through our own thoughts and that we’ve made it all up. For example, if we all look at the same piece of art we are likely to all react differently to it. Some will feel love, some disgust, some neutral. What’s causing us all to have different perceptions? We are experiencing what we think of that piece of art in that moment. If the picture had power over us we would all see it identically: which when you say it like that is obviously impossible.
So what’s the point of my story? Mental health still has a taboo status in our society. This view is getting better thanks to organisations like Mind and Heads Together, but mental health is still not being talked about enough. At any point in time there will be lots of people around us in the workplace, struggling internally with feelings of anxiety, lack of confidence, paranoia, or depression! That’s not only hugely sad, but imagine how much productivity we are losing as a business when people’s minds are not fully present on the task in hand…
I share my story to let you know that I am proof of Standard Life Aberdeen’s commitment to supporting us when we have a mental health problem. We wouldn’t think twice about informing work about a broken bone, so why do we treat our mental wellbeing any differently? We also have a responsibility to look out for each other. If you suspect that someone is suffering in some way ask them; you’d ask them if they were OK if they looked to be in physical pain…
I’ve learned a lot in the last year. More importantly, I saw that what I’d learned for myself could really help the soldiers who call me out of the blue, so I enrolled on a six month coaching course. The conversations we now have are providing the guys with more hope. I now know that they have the potential to escape the feeling of fear that haunts them, as a result of their traumatic memories, rather than having to cope with the thought of that fear reoccurring indefinitely.
If you have any questions on what I’ve written I’d be happy to discuss them further. We need to make the discussion of mental health and wellbeing part of our daily lives, both in and out of work; keeping it a taboo subject is not a healthy way to live and has a detrimental effect on our productivity.
 Most military organisations thrive off black humour, which can seem out of place given the subject matter, but everyone I’ve spoken to so far is searching for normality; not being handled with kid gloves.
 I was actually a little blunter with myself...