by Annette Henley, MBE, Jami Ambassador
However much we try to pretend that work is just something we do to earn a living, for many of us it is much more than that, it helps to give us a sense of purpose and it is a big part of our identities.
Our emotional life at work is important too, for us and for our employers. How we feel about work affects how we perform. In an ideal world our employers would care deeply about the mental health of their staff and how we feel about our workplaces. Sadly, this isn’t how things always play out.
I believe that we should be the change that we want to see, so for the past eight years, I have been volunteering to support mental health in my workplace.
I started shortly after returning to work from four months of sick leave following a breakdown. I became ill because I was overworked and under supported during a period when my employer was going through a big merger. Management eyes were all on the goal of merging and slimming down the organisation with no one paying any attention to what that meant for the staff. Work had succeeded in making me sick. I came back to a much bigger, more formal organisation, one which had little sympathy with the physically sick, let alone anyone with a mental health problem.
It was an uphill struggle to get management to understand or take measures to support my return to work. There were times when I thought I wouldn’t make it and that I might have to give up. As I got stronger I realised that I was not alone in having this difficult experience, that in fact, it was common for people returning to work to struggle and find the workplace unhelpful and even unsafe. At that point I decided that I wanted to make things better for other people and to ensure the return to work is a positive experience.
I then helped to set up a staff support network for mental health at work. When we asked colleagues, tens, then hundreds of people came forward to disclose that they had issues and needed support and had been unable to ask for it at work before. In 2014, I trained as a mental health first aider and have since provided informal support to hundreds of people, mainly listening and signposting to professional support when necessary. Earlier this year I also trained in ASIST suicide prevention, which provides basic training in how to support people at risk of suicide. At the end of the year I will train as a mental health first aid trainer.
I also opened up dialogue with the senior leaders in our organisation. It turned out that they were concerned about high levels of mental illness and sick absence. It was a revelation that they were interested in what I had to say and that there was an appetite for changing and improving the way colleagues are supported. Since that time senior managers have started to speak openly about their experiences of mental health issues, which has encouraged many others to speak up and ask for help and support.
I often present at team meetings and conferences explaining the now considerable support services that my employer has introduced and also what people can do to support themselves and their colleagues. I emphasise the need for empathy and kindness, particularly for managers with staff responsibilities.
I am seeking parity between how we treat physical and mental health and also the end of discrimination against disability altogether. More diverse workplaces will improve how businesses and institutions serve the public.
I haven’t always believed that I have been noticed or made the impact that I am trying for, so I was thrilled to be honoured with an MBE in the 2020 New Year’s Honours List for raising awareness of mental health in the workplace. Unfortunately, because of Covid I’ve not yet had my trip to the Palace.
We have come a long way since I first returned to work, but we are not there yet!