The HR Juggler

Archive for the ‘HR for Mental Health’ Category

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All of our actions have an effect. Often we don’t know how strong the effect will be until the action has been taken for the first time: whether it will be a small pebble, slipping almost unnoticed into the water’s smooth surface, whether it will be a stone skimming across a lake creating a series of ripples, or whether the ripples gather momentum to form a wave, shifting the landscape around us and our sense of what impact our actions can have.

The beginning of this story is known to most of you. I published a guest blog in January last year, we held an HR for Mental Health event. For me, it has always been not so much those early actions which matter, the short-term reaction to the events that unfolded, but whether and how I can use those actions and the experience to effect tangible change in the business that I work in, even in the smallest of ways. Pressing ‘publish’ on the original blog post was never going to be enough on its own.

We’re now a year on and I’m proud that there are some concrete things that I can report, some ripples that have been created. In early January, my learning and development team and I met with Jon Bartlett to discuss how we could include aspects of mental health and wellness into our management training. Early next month, they, I and another HR colleague are hosting and attending Jon and Charlotte Walker’s (@BipolarBlogger) first Mental Health First Aid training course across two days. Next week, there is a one day mental health awareness course being facilitated for the Heads of HR across my wider organisation, to open a dialogue about the topic, to demystify it and to start to plan what steps and actions we will take elsewhere in the business, however small. I have had some positive conversations about incorporating it into our overall corporate responsibility programme and have been asked to report on what we have done to date and what more is planned.

Ripples start small but they build up, have a cumulative effect. I have learned that if you want change to happen, if you care enough and are in a position to have some influence, sometimes you have to be the one to keep pushing the change, to embody the change and to be the one that continues to bring it up and find a way to make it work. It’s taken me much longer than I might have imagined a year ago, to start to make those ripples and work towards making a wave on my home territory. The important thing though is that it is happening now.

So that’s me, a year on. How about you? And if you are where I was for ages, starting to start conversations, or even just thinking about starting them, knowing that you want to do something more and that your organisation is potentially willing, or might be given the chance….how can I help?

Once you start to make a ripple, it can go a long way… 🙂

Alison and Flora

I’m in training to run my first marathon in April and I’ve just reached what feels like a very significant milestone: on Friday, I ran 14 miles for the first time, the furthest I have ever run. One of the most surprising things is that it didn’t feel that big a deal when I was running it, it just felt like a natural progression from what I have been doing up until now. Which, to be fair, was exactly what it was. The other thing that has really surprised me about my training so far is how much I’m enjoying it. When I have trained for half marathons in the past, the longer distances have always felt tough and something of a chore and I often experienced something of a love/hate relationship with training and running in general at those times.

So what has changed? I guess that I’m probably fitter than I have ever been, I’ve been running four times a week since mid-November and I’ve been clocking up a fair few miles: 100 miles during December and I’m already over that figure for January. I’ve also taken nutrition and hydration more seriously, which has helped. But much more than this, it’s the social aspect of running which is making me enjoy the training more this time around. Firstly, because the marathon is a joint endeavour with my fantastic friend Flora and we are really sharing the experience, through meeting up for runs in different parts of the country, texting, chatting, emailing and generally supporting each other every step of the way. That’s made a huge difference to how I’m viewing the journey and the prospect of the marathon itself.

Secondly, I’ve made so many new running friends. I had tried running with the local club before, but it had never quite clicked for me. This time though, I took what felt at the time like the very brave step of joining the small Friday morning spin-off group of the running club, which was mostly made up of retired or semi-retired older men! I can honestly say it’s been the most brilliant running group I could have hoped for – supportive, encouraging, fun, generous in sharing their experience (there are a couple of serious, serial marathon runners amongst them), sociable and inspiring. We also follow up our runs most weeks with coffee and cakes at the local café…what’s not to like?! As the group has grown, it has also in turn led me to new friendships, adventures and experiences and challenged me in different ways, whether that is running faster or further than I imagined, or simply on different terrain. Sure, there are still days when I don’t really feel like going for a run…but those days are not frequent, and the fact that there is usually someone waiting for me so that we can run together, means that I don’t think too much about it and just get going.

Flora wrote a great post about our learnings so far. There are a few more that I have been musing about too.

  • It’s easy to look at other people and worry about the fact that they seem to be running further, faster, better than you. Chances are that there are just as many who have not done as much training, have run fewer miles at a slower pace…it’s just that you don’t notice them so much! At the end of the day though, it really doesn’t matter and you only ever train for and run your own race, nobody else’s.
  • Last week I was fortunate enough to hear Debra Searle MBE speak at our staff conference and there were two particular aspects of her talk that particularly resonated with me. Firstly, that whatever else is going on and however tough things seem, you can always make the effort to choose your attitude towards it and decide the reasons why you are choosing that frame of mind. This is something that I am definitely starting to consciously do, both when I run and when I am doing other things
  • Another pearl of wisdom from Debra was around comfort zones and how, when you are operating outside of your own, they do not remain rigid, rather they start to shift towards you and what seemed impossible, becomes eminently doable and no longer seems scary. For a long time I thought running a marathon would be beyond me; now I simply feel pleased and proud that I am progressing towards that goal and working to make it a reality. That really is something to celebrate :).

So, that’s my training update! Flora and I are raising funds for Mind and the MS Society with our marathon and if you would like to sponsor us, you can find the link here. Thanks so much for all your support.

PS. The picture at the top is Flora and I after having run a very muddy, wet 12.5 miles together at the beginning of January. We are due our next run together this weekend, which will be 16 miles in the New Forest 🙂

 

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Happy Christmas Eve! I hope you’re feeling festive and ready for the forthcoming celebrations, however you will spend the day. This is the last of the advent blogs proper – I’ve gone old skool and reverted to a traditional 24 door calendar this year. There may be one or two ‘reprise’ posts to follow after the festivities have finished…just in case you miss your daily dose of stories and stakes 🙂

Today’s post is different for many reasons…it is a haiku and is mainly pictures rather than words. It tells the story of the year that Jon Bartlett has experienced…from writing that anonymous blog in January, to everything that followed from there. For me, it’s a powerful story of courage, tenacity, struggle, possibility and hope. You can find Jon on Twitter (@Projectlibero) and over on his excellent blog.

Artwork for today (and every day!) is by the brilliant Simon Heath who has done a fabulous job of illustrating all of these advent blogs….thank you!

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So here we are, year 3 of the advent blogs yet I’m on my 4th submission. Last year I took up two spaces, the first of these was anonymous. The second was attributed, done deliberately to make sure that no-one could guess I was the writer of the first blog. Last January was a scary time. I felt like there was a lot at stake, commercial risk and social approval being top of the list.

The second blog sank without trace but that anonymous one just kept on getting shared, so in the end I came clean. I took the risk of the exposure but then a funny thing happened. People started sharing their own stories, started talking about mental health. We all started to make that a normal, (and at times, even comfortable) conversation.

Of late however, due to the pressures of therapy words have been hard to come by, I’m reminded of the quote by Ansel Adams the great American photographer.

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”

So whilst my images do not bear comparison with Adams they speak to me. The images here remind me of my past and present and also inspire my future

Thank you all for your kindness and support. I honestly could not have achieved all I did this year without you. I wish you a Merry Christmas and the Happiest New Year.

P.S. If the pictures aren’t enough for you, then here is the thinking behind each image – and yes I did take them all, even the one with me in it.

January – Anonymity – I was safe but adrift somewhere in my mind.

February – Exposure – I took the decision at the #HR4MH event to disclose my identity.

March – Dialogue – So many good conversations this month.

April – Hectic – The respite of work.

May – Surgery – Knee surgery and getting new medication for my mind.

June – Momentum – Finally getting back on the bike (albeit very slowly)

July – Therapy – After 16 months of waiting I finally started therapy.

August – Struggle – Therapy becomes harder and harder.

September – Preservation – The urge to run from therapy, from the analysis, is immense.

October – Advocacy – Honoured to be asked to represent the charity Mind at Parliament for World Mental Health Day.

November – Adjustment – The doctors agree to me coming off medication to allow the therapy to work more effectively.

December – Reflection – An emotional year draws to a close. I struggle to express it all.

2014 – Possibility – There are several exciting announcements coming, watch out in the first few days of the New Year.

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And especially for Jon, his favourite Christmassy piece of music

Wishing you a wonderful Christmas and all the very best for 2014!

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I love the way that people can come into our lives through all sorts of different routes, something that is particularly prevalent in our use of social media channels. Today’s post is written by Tracey Pallett, a friend of a couple of good friends of mine, who in turn is fast becoming a friend in her own right. From my interactions with her, I’ve found her to be articulate, principled, generous, feisty, loyal, honest and fun. You can find Tracey on Twitter (@EhOhSaysYes) and over on her blog.

Artwork for today (and every day!) is by the brilliant Simon Heath.

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The stakes are high, but the change is worth it.

For the last two years I have been on a whirlwind romance with a national charity; the main focus of this romance was being about to talk openly about my mental health and sharing my journey through mental health darkness with others, showing them that there is light just around the corner.  Though sadly it all came to an end this summer, and while at the time it felt a great loss, afterwards it showed there was more to life than placing all of your eggs in one basket.

It all started when I wrote a blog about my initial journey; sharing the depths of depression, addiction, domestic violence and homelessness, and how I worked hard to overcome the horrors that visited in my nightmares every night.  While to me it was written as a form of escapism, to others it was like a breath of fresh air to hear someone come out the other end of what a lot of people struggle to overcome.  People would ask me how I came out of something like that, how did I cope with the life changes I went through, or how did I do that all on my own.  My answer was always “because I had to.” There was no ‘choice’ in the actions I took to get out of that situation; I had to do what I had to do.

So, when this blog was published by a charity, the response from people was overwhelming and it led to more amazing opportunities to come my way.  I was asked by the charity to work as a Peer Reviewer for their local organisations, I was given the opportunity to help develop a national website of theirs, I was given the chance to help other people with mental health conditions on a Peer Support basis.  While doing the ‘hands on’ work there were more adventures that were passed in my direction; advertising, publicity, media work, and the most amazing of all was to become one of the faces of this charity.   This was an opportunity to let the world know about this charity without actually saying a word to anyone, my face drew people in to look further in their own time.  It allowed people to see that there was help out there for mental health and that they’re not alone.  This is such a proud moment in my life, especially when you take into account how my life was just 5 years previously.

Then things changed, my view of life changed, my view of how to help people changed and due to circumstances which appeared out of my control I had to make the ultimate sacrifice.  I had to walk away from this amazing world I once loved and would have done anything for.  When it happened I was in shock, I didn’t know where I could turn to for support and I didn’t know who I could trust to discuss the details of what happened.  From letting people know that they are not alone with mental illness, I felt alone myself.  I didn’t know what was going to happen from here on, and I didn’t know whether the stakes of losing this relationship was worth the pain I was feeling.  The future just didn’t look so bright anymore.

While this magical journey was going on, on the side lines I worked my way into medical school.  At the time it felt that medical school was on the back burner while I was happily talking about mental health and making sure people didn’t feel alone.  Though, through the tears and pain I came to realise that I had worked just as hard to get into medical school as I did to get out of that dark period of my life.  Although I went to therapy to work through the emotions of my recent loss, it was talking with friends who reminded me that getting into university was an amazing feat, but to get into medical school was something very special indeed.  For the first time in two years I was able to look at what I could make from my life, for my life.  Why should this incredible journey end here because I couldn’t see the wonder of medical school and where I can take it.

What was at stake for me was losing this relationship with a charity, losing friendships because I couldn’t talk about it, losing my own blogging identity, no longer feeling I had direction in my life.  Though what came out of this loss was something that I feel would never have happened unless I did walk away; the ability to see strengths in myself, to see a future in education, to know that I can make a good doctor, that I can help people from the other side of the desk.  I now have purpose again and with friends helping me see there are great things to discover in the medical world, I can continue to grow and learn.  I can appreciate myself once more.

While the stakes were high in walking away from homelessness, to me the stakes we just as high walking away from this charity.  Though on both occasions, leaving these things behind me has need up a whole new world to me; a world that I want to be part of and enjoy to its fullest, a world of amazement and wonder that can only lead to one thing; true joy and happiness.  It has taught me to not be afraid of change, but to embrace it and take control of where the journey goes from here.

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It has been an absolute pleasure and a privilege to get to know Charlotte Walker aka @BipolarBlogger this year, both in person and through social media. She is immensely bright, articulate and compelling and offers those unfamiliar with the daily realities of living with a mental health condition a really powerful insight into what matters about the topic and how she experiences life. I can honestly say I have learnt more from her this year than she will probably ever know…and I am sincerely grateful to her for her generosity and consistent searing honesty. You can follow Charlotte on Twitter (@BipolarBlogger) and read more posts from her over on her excellent, award-winning blog.

Artwork for today (and every day!) is by the brilliant Simon Heath.

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2013 began just four months after losing another career. It’s not impossible to retain a profession when you have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, but it can be extremely difficult, particularly when your episodes last for not months but years. I began the New Year with the knowledge that although my condition was improving, I was still nowhere near able to work full time. I could not cope with a commute and I knew I was not resilient enough to go back to the kind of target-driven public sector job I had always worked at. I would have to do something different – but what? My confidence was low. I did not feel employable.

When my friend Jon Bartlett offered me a chance to take part in an event entitled Human Resources for Mental Health (or #HR4MH), I jumped at the chance (you can read the transcript of my talk, as well as Jon’s reasons for organising the event). I couldn’t put my finger on why, but being there seemed important. I couldn’t have known it, but that early February evening would be a catalyst to beginning to build a new career, for one simple reason: people who heard my talk came forward to tell me that they believed in me. I wasn’t sure that I believed in me, but they did, and they were people I respected.

During 2013 I began to believe in myself more, to push against the boundaries of my illness and find that my limitations were not so fixed as I had once thought. Although I was already comfortable with publically about my mental health if you had told me in February that by June I would speak confidently on live television (Sky News), I would not have believed you. If you had told me in June that in September I would spend an afternoon in Westminster, telling the story to a string of MPs, I would have been amazed. If you had suggested then that by advent 2012 I would have won a prestigious Mind Media Award for my blog, appeared on Woman’s Hour and be waiting to interviewed for Society Guardian, I would probably have laughed. Yet I have done all this and so much more.

At #HR4MH I described living with a fluctuating mental health condition as like being repeatedly inundated by a tidal wave. I’m still not home and dry – I couldn’t manage a nine to five job even now – but I see more dry sand than I did a year ago. When placing my stakes, I have had to bang them in hard, hoping for some structure and security even if the waters rise again. One form of security I particularly need is the financial kind. Some of what I do has begun to pay, but it is not yet enough to live on. I have to fully believe that the things I do – from public speaking to consultancy, from research to writing – are worth paying for, and paying well. So I’ll keep exploring my beach, banging in my stakes just as hard as I can. And when I eventually reach the safety of the dunes I will look back at my haphazard line of stakes and think: I did that.

Yesterday, I ran the Royal Parks Half Marathon in aid of Mind. I wrote about the different motivations and beginnings of this decision here. Many people have asked me how it was, and in truth, it was mixed. I am hugely proud of one part of my achievement and far more ambivalent about another part of it…and it is perhaps at this point in time, of reflecting upon what I’ve learnt, that helps me to better understand the complexity of my motivation for doing the run and what, after all, matters most.

The running itself is only one part of this story, but it matters to me enough to explain the context. The first time I ran Royal Parks Half last year, I had been running for only four months and I had no expectation of a finishing time, my goal was to simply complete it with a smile on my face and joy at having done what I had set out to do. And I did – I ran it in 2 hours 17 minutes, was elated at having achieved my goal.  I followed this up by running a hilly (and freezing!) half marathon in Tunbridge Wells in February, where running with some speedier friends, I completed the course in an exhausting but wonderful 2 hours 4 minutes. This, of course, is what set my context for this weekend’s half marathon: I wanted to better my personal best, continue improving, even though I knew how hard it had been to run the distance in that time previously.

In the event, I ran this weekend’s half marathon in a respectable 2 hours 10 minutes, which is OK but not amazing. Yes, it was hot, yes it was crowded with thousands of other runners, but in truth the most important element for my learning was that it was consistent with how I had trained. I did entertain an aspirational hope that I might have squeezed in under the 2 hour mark…but to do that, I would have had to have run the fastest 5k and 10k that I have ever knowingly achieved…and then maintain that pace all the way round! So, it would always have been a stretch. On reflecting upon this now, I realise that if I really want to get faster at running, I have to practise running more quickly at the shorter distances and build up from there. There are many parallels to this in life, as well as in business…that would be a whole post in its own right!

The running itself was only ever one part of the story though…my biggest privilege was running with this on my back:

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It is this that, for me, puts everything else into perspective and makes me enormously proud of what I did yesterday. Roger was a better runner than I will ever be…he was one of these extraordinarily fit people who ran marathons and frequently went out running with bricks in his rucksack to challenge himself further. Whilst running yesterday, I thought of him often: how amused he would be that I had taken on the gauntlet of running for him, rather than my lovely husband, how chuffed he would be to know that I have so far raised £755 plus gift aid for Mind in his memory and how he would be genuinely amazed and touched that 11 years on, we still love and care and think about him as much as we do. For my part, I wished I had known him better and for longer, wished he was still with us today to chat things over with…but it was special to be able to honour his memory in the way that I was able to yesterday.

So, how was it? Physical and mentally tough at times, long, hot, tiring, exciting, rewarding, inspiring…and a privilege to do it in the memory of those who are no longer able to. All in all, pretty amazing!

I also had some fantastic supporters in the shape of Jon Bartlett and Charlie Elise Duff who came along to watch and cheer me on, which I appreciated hugely!

If you would like to retrospectively sponsor me and donate to Mind, you can find my sponsorship page here. Any amount, large or small will make a difference to the excellent work that Mind do. Thank you!

running

This blog post is far from neat or conventional in the usual rules of beginning, middle and end.  It seems to me that there are at least three different beginnings to the story that I want to share with you, the middle continues to be a work in progress and the end is far from known. Many of the pieces of this jigsaw may already be familiar to you, so forgive me for restating them.

The beginnings are these…

In January 2002, my brother-in-law committed suicide. None of us knew at the time that he was depressed or suffered any mental health issues. I wrote about his story here.

In January of this year, I published this post as part of the Advent and New Year series, written by Jon Bartlett, which caused huge waves in the HR community about the topic of mental health and what we as HR professionals could do about it. This led to the 25% Club series of posts of individuals sharing their experiences of suffering mental health conditions, an HR for Mental Health event with Mind Charity, organised by Jon and a much more open dialogue on the topic of mental health.

This time last year, I was training for my first half-marathon, having not run at all previously. It was a huge deal to me, uncertain as I was as to whether I would achieve the goal which at the start had appeared reckless and unattainable. I did it and was delighted.

Right now I am again in training for the Royal Parks Half, which takes place on the 6th October. This time I am running for Mind and I really want to raise as much money as I can for them, as it is such a brilliant cause. Because of my brother-in-law and because of the increased understanding that I have gained this year of mental health and the work that Mind do, it means a huge amount to me and I would love it if you could support me and them.

This will be my third half-marathon in a year and I am still waiting to discover the magical point of when the training becomes easier, or perhaps more accurately, when it becomes easy…but given that the three or four training runs I do each week still frequently feel tough, I don’t think that will happen anytime soon! That’s OK..I know I’m not alone on that one ;).

If you would like to support me and donate to Mind, you can find my sponsorship page here.

Please do take the time to check out some of the fantastic resources that Mind produce about mental health at work and visit the excellent Time To Change website.

Thank you!

The wonderful Simon Heath (@SimonHeath1) has made a brilliant and very generous offer to create a bespoke piece of artwork by means of a blind auction in aid of Mind. Please have a read, take part in the auction and support this fantastic cause.

I will definitely be making a bid and keeping my fingers crossed…he’s one VERY talented man!

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This post is part of the 25% club series dealing with the topic of mental health, particularly as it relates to the workplace. Some of the posts, like today’s, will be accredited, others will be anonymous – all have a powerful impact and help to shine a light on a topic that we need to talk about so much more than we currently do. Today’s post is by Lesley Campbell who can be found on Twitter @lellielesley.

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With hindsight, I think I’ve always been one of the 25%, having experienced episodes of depression for as long as I can remember, but it was only in 2008 when this became something I could no longer deny. 2008 was the year I eventually broke down completely and ultimately the start of recovery. This is a long and ever-evolving story, but I have tried to keep it brief – or rather as short as possible – 2500+ words is rarely considered brief. I hope you will take the time to read it and please feel free to comment.

So – summer 2007, I’d just graduated with a good degree and joined my current employer as a new management consultant. Two weeks before, I’d got engaged to my long-term partner and life felt good. I loved my new job and my first project was going really well. Everything was going smoothly and perhaps foolishly, I thought that my past unhappiness was probably just part of growing up and that hopefully my past experiences with depression were behind me.

Unfortunately in May 2008, nearly 10 months after starting work, I realised this was a mistake. I suddenly found I was no longer coping with life. There was no real trigger; it just crept up on me over a couple of weeks. I felt overwhelmed by the smallest things and dreaded every day and every night, unable to sleep but unable to drag myself out of bed each morning to face the day. I was suicidal and could see no other option. I drove to work, fantasising about crashing my car into a motorway bridge or brick wall. I wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. I was unable to concentrate at work and found myself working harder and harder to achieve less and less. I was desperate to hide how I was feeling and did everything I could to make sure no one noticed. I kept going to work because I didn’t know what else I could do and I was too afraid to ask for help. I hoped it would pass like it had always done in the past, but things were getting worse.

Everything came to a head in early June. I was in a one-to-one with my line manager, discussing a piece of work I’d been struggling to get finished. My boss made a well-intentioned, but flippant comment “It’s not important, don’t kill yourself over this” and I know he was trying to minimise my stress, but it made me panic. I feared he could read my mind and would try to stop my plans for suicide. I hid my panic and the meeting carried on as normal, but as the day went on his words were echoing in my mind and I realised I needed to say something. I couldn’t find the words, so I emailed him and explained the way I was feeling.

He read my email and despite my requests in the email to discuss any action with me first, he immediately contacted HR. I felt betrayed by this, but understand why he did it. Thankfully, the HR manager was very supportive. The next day, she called me to discuss what could be done to help me. They asked if I wanted to take time off work and if I would see my GP, but I was too scared to take that step. We compromised and agreed that I would see Occupational Health instead. As my line manager was not concerned about my performance at work and I wanted to maintain a routine, we also agreed I could stay in work until I had been to occupational health. I was relieved to have finally said something and frightened about what would happen next.

Occupational Health was a big step for me. It was the first time I’d discussed my depression with a medical professional. I was scared of doctors. I feared he wouldn’t believe me or take me seriously. I shouldn’t have worried – he agreed that I was going through an episode of depression and again told me I needed to see my GP as he felt I would benefit from medication and therapy. I knew there was no point fighting it any longer and made an appointment.

Seeing my GP was really difficult and I didn’t find her particularly helpful or supportive. She wanted to start me on medication straight away, but I was unsure about this. She made a referral to the primary care mental health team and insisted on signing me off work and I reluctantly agreed to a two-week break. Little did I know that this would be the start of a two and a half year sickness absence.

The next year or so was very challenging – the worst of my life. My condition deteriorated rapidly after I stopped working – my work and routine had been holding me together until that point, but once you stop it can be hard to keep going. I agreed to try medication, which only made me worse as the drugs exacerbated my mood and made me dysphoric – agitated and paranoid, as well as desperately suicidal. I changed GPs and medication and still didn’t improve. I ended up spending time in and out of hospital, trying different medications and therapies and struggling to find anything that helped. I attempted to kill myself more than once and on one occasion I nearly succeeded. I even had ECT during the spring of 2009 in a desperate attempt to bring me out of depression. I was deeply unwell and at the time I really didn’t think I’d ever recover or return to work. I honestly thought I’d be dead by now and I suspect I wasn’t the only one that feared that. At one point, I was told the horrific fact that after two years out of the workplace due to illness, you are more likely to die within five years than you are likely to go back to work. Not exactly encouraging statistics.

Eventually, in January 2010, during a five-week stay in hospital, under the care of a new psychiatrist, I was started on a different combination of medication and this time the drugs started to work for me. It sounds like a cliché but it really did feel as if the clouds had parted and a weight had been taken off my shoulders. Slowly, I started to piece my life back together.

After a few more months, I started to think about work again and got back in touch with HR. I was referred back to occupational health and we agreed a very slow phased return to work. We started with just two hours a week at first, increasing over about six months to 12hrs a week divided over three days and then over the next year we eventually increased to full-time hours. It took a lot of time and patience, but the slow and steady increases were important. I thought they were joking at first when I was told I could only do 2 or 4 hours a week, but I was amazed at how tired those hours made me.

Soon after I returned, I was found an internal project working with our graduate HR and Training team. It has been a role which I’ve really enjoyed and found immensely rewarding. The work has been challenging, which has been important for rebuilding my confidence – I didn’t want to return to work and find myself counting paperclips – I needed a role that would help to strengthen and test my recovery, but I also needed a role which was flexible enough to accommodate me and my needs. Working internally has fulfilled that brief and I am so grateful to my employer for allowing me to return to work in this way. They have been very supportive, providing reasonable adjustments to allow me to manage my condition. Things such as a later start time and regular home-working allowed me to better manage the side effects of my medication. A company smartphone assists me with memory and concentration issues, which are both a residual symptom of mental illness and an unfortunate outcome of the ECT. Autonomy over my schedule and workload allowed me to flex things depending on my mood – if I work harder on a good day, I can compensate for the bad ones. These are just little tweaks to my work environment and adjustments which cost very little, but they can make a big difference. Overall I think I have been given the best possible chance to succeed in my return to work.

Since returning to work, I’ve vowed to be open and honest about my condition. When I returned, someone in HR told me not to tell anyone I had been off on sick leave. I was unsure how I could walk back into the office after more than two years and just pretend nothing had happened. I know they wanted to protect me, but I didn’t feel I could do this – I am not a good liar. I suspect that if my absence was caused by pretty much any other health condition, I’d have been welcomed back with flowers and asked how I’m feeling. People wouldn’t have been afraid to talk about it and I certainly wouldn’t be expected to hide. Just because it is mental health does not mean it should be any different. Managing any long-term health condition is hard enough, without trying to hide it as well. I didn’t want to go through that again. Instead I chose to speak out.

One of the first things I did when I returned to work was joining our disability network. I have been actively involved in raising awareness and increasing membership of the network and have been a champion for mental health within the group. Last year, I approached our leadership and encouraged them to show their support for Time to Change. They agreed and in October 2012, we held an event ahead of World Mental Health Day. As well as organising the event, I spoke about my personal experience of returning to work after mental illness – a terrifying, but rewarding and liberating experience. A few years ago I didn’t have the courage to admit I was struggling with depression and now I was talking about it in front of our UK Managing Director and other Leadership. The event culminated in the MD and our disability network sponsor signing an organisational pledge to support Time to Change, alongside Time to Change director Sue Baker. It was a proud moment and a big step forward for my employer too. A few years previously there was a hesitation from HR and management to mention mental illness as it was seen as too serious or not relevant in the work place – instead there was a focus on softer terms such as “wellbeing” or stress as these were considered more acceptable. Now we were openly talking about depression, suicide and mental illness. At last there was recognition of the importance of this issue to the business. People were listening and more importantly, people were talking. There was a real buzz after the event and there are definitely signs of an improved awareness and desire to change. We are trying to maximise on this momentum, but there is still a long way to go.

However, I recognise that it’s one thing speaking out in a closed environment, in a workplace where I know there is a strong ethos of diversity, where I am already supported and where I have already proved my worth. I have to confess I was less certain about posting this blog under my real name in an open forum like this. Google is all-powerful and if a client ever finds this or perhaps a potential future employer, I wonder how they will react. I don’t know. However, I do know that if it reflects badly, then perhaps working for them wouldn’t work out well anyway. I hope my CV, my skills and my experience will speak for themselves and that they will give me an opportunity to address any concerns they may have. I hope that it is something we can talk about and that they recognise that actually, knowing about my condition means it is something that can be managed. I also hope that they realise the “me” they knew before, is still me. I don’t want to be defined by my illness or it to be the only thing I am known for, but at the same time, I don’t want to deny that it exists. It has shaped my experience and made me who I am. I want to share my experience and hope that people will learn from it and that in due course, time will change and I won’t need to worry.

So how about now and the future? I continue to live with a mental illness – a mood disorder. I recognise that I am likely to be living with this condition for the rest of my life and I will probably be taking medication for most, if not all, of that time. The medication ensures that the lows are not as low and the highs not as high and there is a stability in my life that had been missing before. I am never completely free of the effects of this illness – both residual symptoms and the side effects of treatment (current and past) leave their impact, but at the moment I am well and hope to stay that way. I am not under any illusions that I will never experience further episodes (and I live in fear of that moment), but I hope that I am better prepared and able to manage those if they happen. I have good insight and am able to monitor my moods and watch out for warning signs. I know how to get help if I need it and I am careful to manage my condition. I avoid alcohol, try to stick to a regular routine and try to manage stress. I tolerate the physical side effects of medication as horrible as they are and I keep taking the pills, because it is a small price to pay for being mentally well. All of this isn’t easy, but I do it because I want to stay well and I want to stay in work. I love my job, I love my career and I want to be successful. I refuse to let this illness stop that.

Recently I have embarked on the next step in my recovery – a return to client-facing consulting work. This is a massive step. I have to be honest and say I was unsure if I would ever make it to this point, but I now feel ready to take on this new challenge. And with it certainly comes new challenges – longer hours, lots of travel and more stress – all things which could potentially trigger that next episode which I fear so much. I need to balance my health needs with the needs of the project and those of my new team. I need to handle the expectations of the client and ensure that my illness doesn’t mean we don’t deliver. I am confident we can do this, but the team needs to work together to make it work. Key to this is openness and honesty – it is about talking. Unless I am honest with my employer and colleagues, it is hard for them to help me and hard for me to get the things I need – flexibility, understanding, support. I don’t need much from them – I want to take responsibility for my own condition and own recovery, but anything we can do to minimise the impact of my illness will certainly help towards making this a success. So far we’ve not done enough talking, but we are getting there. They know all they need to for now and with time, I am sure I will share more.

At the moment it is early days in the new role. I think it is going well. The work is interesting and I am learning a lot. I am finding it tough at times, but rewarding and enjoyable. I think I am finding the balance. I am still struggling with my medication and the impact that has on my sleep – early starts and lots of travel compound these issues, but I hope with time things will improve. If not, then I am sure we will find a compromise which will enable me to manage this issue better. I am still learning how to live with this illness and what impact it has on my work, but I am confident that whatever happens, we will work it out.

So, for now I am hopeful. Hopeful that things are moving in the right direction with regards to mental health stigma in the workplace and hopeful that I can remain in my rightful place in the workplace. I hope too that posting this will be the right decision and that it won’t come back to bite. Only time will tell.

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If you care about mental health and want to make a difference there are lots of things you can do

  • visit Mind’s website and check out their excellent corporate resources
  • take the ‘time to change’ pledge
  • share your story and read those of others as part of this blog series. If you would like to contribute, please get in touch with me on Twitter (@AlisonChisnell) or through the comments section of this blog
  • we are forming an #HRforMentalHealth team to fundraise for Mind by running the Royal Parks half marathon in October. Register here if you’d like to join us – we’re a friendly bunch with some first-time half-marathon runners joining us :)

tears

This post is part of the 25% club series dealing with the topic of mental health, particularly as it relates to the workplace. Some of the posts, like today’s, will be accredited, others will be anonymous – all have a powerful impact and help to shine a light on a topic that we need to talk about so much more than we currently do. Today’s post is written by Hayley Brown, who you can find over on her blog or on Twitter @HaylsBrown.

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When I first saw Alison’s 25% club, I knew that it was something I wanted to get involved with. I have battled with mental ill-health for over 10 years now and know a lot of people who are in the same position that have felt ashamed, worried or alone and not able to talk about it. But the first few times I put pen to paper, it was hard! So, I have decided to write my contribution like a story, because it’s easier that way for me.

I want to introduce myself, my name is Hayley and I have Generalised Anxiety Disorder. If people want to make a negative judgement about me, that’s their choice. I have made mistakes in my life; I have achieved great things, I am sure I will experience many more of both. Mental ill-health has been a part of these experiences and sometimes it has driven them, but not all of them. I will not allow a negative opinion, or judgement, to shake my perception of who I am. It has taken me 10 years to get to this point.

So, onto the story.

Once upon a time, in a magical kingdom far away, there was a little princess. The little princess was a clever young girl, with lots of wonderful friends, she lived in a big white castle with sparkling turrets and vast gardens along with her parents the king and queen, who adored her. Every day, the princess would wake up and look out of her window across the vast and beautiful kingdom, after eating her breakfast she would meet her friends to start their schooling and play together until it was time for supper.

From the outside, her life was perfect and untroubled. She was well liked, excelled at her studies; she had plenty of interesting past-times and a family who loved her.

However, little did they know of the great storm, which had brought rise to her troubles.

It had happened a few months ago. One dark night there was a great thunderstorm, lightning flashed and struck the sparkling turrets, heavy droplets of rain fell and stained the castle grey, wind shook and battered the perfectly manicured gardens and, in the midst of all this, the little princess was visited by an evil wizard.

The wizard was well-known throughout the realm, but no one dared speak his name, he had no rhyme or reason to his vengeance; he was an angry and cruel man, specialising in torturous spells, which were difficult to shake.

He appeared in front of her as she was daydreaming and raised his arms in spiteful glee, wielding powerful magic.

And then he was gone.

Days, then weeks, then months passed and nothing happened. Slowly, the princess began to think of herself as lucky, she had survived and after a few months, the wizard’s visit was forgotten.

Until tonight.

Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.

The little princess was woken from her sleep, in the dead of night.

Tap Tap Tap Tap Tap.

What was that?

She opened her eyes and leapt across the room screaming! A swarm of bees! A Smeagol! A shadowy figure! This was repeated many nights in the week, until she was scared to go to sleep.

The princess became exhausted as these ghouls visited her night after night. Each targeted to her deepest fears and worries.

Worse, she began to question her relationships: ‘they don’t really like me’ she mused, ‘they are only nice because they think I am a princess.’ She faced tests with a new sense of fear ‘I can’t do this’, she continued to visit her friends after school and try out her hobbies but when she got home, she locked herself away and cried inexplicably. She became worried about almost everything: ‘what if this carriage overturns?’, ‘what if the sun should explode’, ‘what if I am attacked’. Over time this became: ‘this carriage will overturn’, ‘this sun will explode’, ‘I will be attacked’.

She was determined to stay ahead and spent twice as long scrutinising and creating her work. So that no one could know. Apart from the people she lived with, from whom it was difficult to hide.

The king and queen became worried and encouraged the princess to visit the learned owl who knew about these things. 

 So, one bright, crisp morning she set out alone to see the owl. She did not tell her friends.

She arrived at his premises and entered through the front door. She saw an odd collection of creatures arranged in the owl’s old fashioned sitting room. An elephant sneezing vigorously, people with limbs bundled up in swathes of white, a cat with an eyepatch and a baby crying. The princess felt guilty.

‘Hello my dear’, said the owl ‘How may I help you’. ‘Well’, began the princess, going on to explain her troubles, talking as quickly as she could, for she knew the owl was busy.

The owl listened, and once he was satisfied that he had heard enough, reached into his drawer and pulled out a magic capsule.

‘Swallow one per day, it will give you temporary reprieve and also you should see the giraffe, she knows more about these things – but her time is short, you may wait for a number of weeks’ he said.

The princess took the capsule and placed it into her pocket, pleased that she would be allowed some relief from the evil spell, and started back to the castle.

When she returned the queen asked, ‘what advice did the wise owl give you’?

The princess explained her journey and showed the queen her magic capsule.

‘Pooh!’ said the queen, ‘that owl is clearly busy and foolish. You must not take the magic capsule; I have read it in the news, go and see the giraffe’.

Months passed and the princess battled to hide the effects of the spell and carry on, whilst the capsule sat untouched, inviting, on her dresser.

Until finally the morning came, she travelled to see the giraffe, who lived far, far away from the castle. No carriages went that way, and all of the castle’s horsemen were busy, so she walked.

When she got to the giraffe’s house, a bluebird met her ‘Hello’, it twittered, ‘are you here to see the giraffe?’

‘Yes’ she answered

‘I’m sorry, the giraffe is not well today, you will have to make another appointment, we can fit you in, in about 6 week’s time’.

The princess left, disheartened.

She found a place to sit, and mulled.

‘When will this torture end?’ she thought ‘and what is so bad about the magic capsule’?

She travelled home and consulted the magic mirror.

‘The capsule will provide you relief’ it said ‘but at this cost – ‘

The princess sighed:

‘Would not anyone in pain, accept some form of relief for these trade offs’

She could take no more, she walked into the chambers, up to the dresser and swallowed the capsule and waited……………………

 Nothing happened.

‘This was the way with the spell’ she thought.

So she kept taking the capsules. She did not tell the queen.

Slowly but surely, the ghouls did not visit, her worrying became less, and the appointment with the giraffe drew near. She stopped crying. She forgot about the wizard.

On the morning of the appointment the princess felt almost like her normal self.

‘I will go to see the giraffe’, she thought ‘as I have the appointment anyway’.

‘How are you?’ asked the giraffe

‘Well I feel fine now, but…’ she started.

They talked and talked for what felt like hours, until the little princess was exhausted.

The giraffe told her to keep taking the magic capsules and they made another appointment, and then another, and then another until the little princess felt that she could talk no more.

They kept diaries, monitored and developed strategies to beat the spell.

‘It’s a strong one’ the giraffe thought, ‘that might not ever go away’.

After a few visits, the giraffe and the princess decided they did not need to meet anymore.

Then, after some time, she revisited the owl, and asked for a smaller magic capsule. He agreed.

Then, after more time still, she began to look at others, in the same way she looked at herself and she found the courage to talk about that fateful night, when the evil wizard came.

She found that they too, had been visited, by the wizard.

And they talked and talked, and they understood and they vowed that they would talk to others and spread the word of the magic capsule and the giraffe, and their power when used together, in harmony so that no one would ever need to suffer in silence again.

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If you care about mental health and want to make a difference there are lots of things you can do

  • visit Mind’s website and check out their excellent corporate resources
  • take the ‘time to change’ pledge
  • share your story and read those of others as part of this blog series. If you would like to contribute, please get in touch with me on Twitter (@AlisonChisnell) or through the comments section of this blog
  • we are forming an #HRforMentalHealth team to fundraise for Mind by running the Royal Parks half marathon in October. Register here if you’d like to join us – we’re a friendly bunch with some first-time half-marathon runners joining us :)

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