I had known that I was very stressed for quite some time. However, a huge feeling of guilt and failure – of letting the team, company and myself down – prevented me from addressing it.
And while doing so, I suffered with an increasing feeling of isolation and loneliness from all people and activities I enjoyed, and reverted to obsessing about work, with no motivation to do anything else.
It got to the stage that I was walking around with my resignation letter for a number of months, as I felt that the only way out of the scenario I was in, was to leave the business. I worked in a high-pressure customer-facing role, with three pressure points – customer requirements, inertia within the company about getting things done, and business expectations around delivering financial and customer performance. On any given day, I felt I wasn’t delivering one or more of these and that I was letting someone down.
Eventually, one Thursday morning before I’d left for work, I just broke down!
My wife was fantastic and the catalyst who stopped the cycle at that point. She knew where I was mentally, and that I needed some help and support. She called my boss at 7.30am and said I couldn’t continue any more as things were.
At that point, things were taken out of my hands. My wife, my line manager and my support network started making decisions on my behalf. I had no control, but I needed them made, otherwise I’d have continued down that path of getting more and more frustrated, despondent and isolated.
Support from Leonardo
I can’t fault the company for what they did for me. Early in my journey, the Leonardo Employee Wellbeing Manager visited me at home and discussed what help I needed. The company gave me time away from the business to understand and address what was going on, and give me the space to stop work fully. It also organised third party counselling, which allowed me to start gaining clarity of thought, and helped me with my rehabilitation.
I was going through a cycle of emotions that was changing massively – from huge depression and slumps to opportunities going forward. I feel massively indebted to my line manager and the company for that time, space and support they provided, along with helping me on my journey about next steps, and considering my options for returning to work in a new role.
Encouraging people to open up
Upon returning to work, I went on the front foot, sharing what I’d been through and inviting people to ask me any questions they had about my situation. My main reasons for this were that I wanted something good to come out of my experience and talking about it helps me process what I’ve been through. Additionally, I am keen that other people are comfortable talking about their mental wellbeing and not bottling it up.
This was something I myself had not done previously. I didn’t want to face up to it or talk about it openly. I chose to hide how I was feeling from my team; I was too precious about my mental wellbeing and worried about the negative consequences of saying I wasn’t coping, and what people might think of me.
My proactive approach to talking about my mental health led to me delivering sessions about what I’d been through, speaking to colleagues across the business, from new starters to long-serving employees, and from those in early careers roles through to senior leaders. Following these sessions, some people reveal they’re on that same journey. Being open generates dialogue about mental wellbeing at an individual and company level.
Mental health needs talking about in a structured way; we need a stress scale in the business, to allow people to validate where they are on the scale, in order to then propose appropriate actions and support. But spotting the signs of stress can be difficult as the symptoms are very individual.
Key signs and behaviours to look out for – by an individual and a manager
If you think you are suffering from some sort of stress, there are several indicators which may prompt you to seek support. The first is working longer hours; since work appears to be all-encompassing, you constantly worry about work to the point that it overwhelms your thinking and there is no ability to switch off from it. Poor sleeping is the second sign to note, while a feeling of isolation and being personally responsible for things going wrong at work are also symptoms to look out for. This can extend into an inability to think rationally, with negative thoughts dominating your mindset, which then impact your ability to put things into perspective and find time to compute things.
From a manager’s perspective, these can be difficult to spot. But, if a team member does confide in you, do not go straight into ‘manager mode’, by trying to solve a work issue, which is what I used to do. Based on my own experiences, I know that in those scenarios, people need someone who would talk to them about what they are going through, what their aspirations are and how they were feeling.
When people talk to me now about any difficulties they are experiencing, we have a conversation about the individual first and their wellbeing. Only afterwards do we talk about work. Nobody should feel uncomfortable about the impact of disclosing their mental health challenges and worrying about what it means for their future.
I therefore find it very encouraging that as a result of sessions they’ve been to, some managers are now starting team meetings by having conversations and talking about mental wellbeing, before going into work topics.
Identifying issues early in the mental health journey
While recognising that the company is really good at supporting people once they’ve tipped over the edge, I am acutely aware that we all need to improve how to provide support for people earlier in the journey, when they are starting to experience mental health difficulties. We must do more in this space, and open up opportunities such as counselling with an independent person for those people who could benefit.
From my own experience, I’ve taken some critical lessons which I now apply to myself and encourage other to do.
Do the things you enjoy, especially outside of work, to stay motivated and fulfilled. This will also help you control negative thoughts and remain focused on the things you can control and manage. Taking a short-break can be very effective for breaking a cycle of mental health difficulties.
It starts with a conversation and asking for help early, without fear of consequences. But this is likely to be just the beginning. Addressing mental health issues can be a continuous journey that takes years, and so to start with, remember to take time to talk.