Time Well Spent

02 February 2023

On Time to Talk Day 2023, Leonardo’s Tom Fox explains how volunteering is helping him deal with mental health challenges he has experienced, as well as enabling him to support other people both within Leonardo and externally through the Dorset branch leading mental health charity, Mind.

I started volunteering having come through a period where my wellbeing and mental health weren’t very good at all, and I wanted to give something back. During this period, I was lucky to have support from Leonardo; something I’ll always be grateful for. It put me onto a path in terms of how I’d like to help other people, by being open and honest, and talking about my own mental health struggles.

Volunteering for Dorset Mind

A big part of my recovery was focussed around the NHS’s 5 steps to mental wellbeing. These are Connect; Learn; Active; Notice; Give. Once I felt I had made a significant recovery and learnt a lot about wellbeing, I wanted to share my story.

It was the ‘Give’ pillar that encouraged me to volunteer, and considering that Dorset Mind had helped with my own recovery, are a local charity and were seeking volunteers, it made absolute sense to join this amazing group and help others.

My role in principle is a ‘befriender’; I talk to clients who are struggling and I aim to use the steps to wellbeing to encourage them to set goals that will help their recovery. It’s about building a relationship with them and encouraging them to talk as much as I can. The steps to wellbeing fit in to nearly every conversation you could ever have, so with a bit of practice, I can make suggestions in terms of setting goals for the week ahead and explain the benefits that these goals will have to the individual.

Moving from reactive to proactive support

Back at Leonardo, I wanted to do more to change the stigma around mental health and wellbeing; simply getting people to talk about the topic was an important proactive step that I knew would benefit us all greatly. This was not going to be an overnight fix; you need to educate colleagues about the importance of positive wellbeing, looking after yourself so that you can look after others, and creating an awareness of the signs that somebody is struggling.

When our Wellbeing network group was being planned, I jumped at the opportunity to add my experience to the steering committee as one of two Vice Chairs. I use my own mental health challenges, as well as the positive experience I have gained from volunteering, to advise and help coordinate the group’s initiatives. Several people have spoken to me to say they were suffering with work-related stress and didn’t know what to do, and feared being labelled as someone who can’t cope with their workload. But in the first year of the group’s existence, we have seen very positive steps in trying to reduce the stigma associated with mental health (psychological wellbeing) and educating staff about all aspects of wellbeing (psychological, physical, financial and social) so that we can all be the best version of ourselves.

The importance of talking about mental health

Fundamentally, talking often alleviates our concerns or negative thoughts / feelings. If we bottle things up, people are going to go pop at the end of the day! Therefore, the first thing anyone who is struggling with mental health issues should do is share their feelings. It’s the start of the healing process and the equivalent of calling a doctor regarding a physical illness that you are concerned about or may want treating. The difference is the stigma that is attached to mental health, which is often the blocker to people openly talking about their own concerns, particularly if these are work-related.

Time to Talk Day is an opportune moment to address this topic, since it is a day dedicated to talking about mental health, encouraging friends, families, communities and workplaces to talk and listen to each other, with the aim of changing lives for the better.

The more we openly talk about our own mental health, the more we create an accepting society where people feel comfortable to open up. In the workplace, talking to others can help vent emotions and provide people with an opportunity to express how they are feeling and what they are thinking. Often a colleague used as a ‘sounding board’ can offer a different perspective and help reduce concerns. Furthermore, talking about feelings and thoughts can help boost confidence, reduce stress and influence mental health in a positive way.

There are also educational benefits to talking about mental health, by demonstrating the signs and symptoms of mental health problems and providing somebody else with the confidence they may need to seek out support for themselves.

Helping someone with mental health difficulties

If you are suffering, I would urge you to talk to somebody – your partner, a friend, a colleague, your manager, your General Practitioner. Often the signs can be masked and will go unnoticed by colleagues or loved ones. If this is the case, any negative thoughts and/or feelings experienced by the individual will grow and worsen inside.

Within Leonardo, there is free access to an Employee Assistance Programme and the Thrive Mental Wellbeing App, while the Occupational Health team offers confidential support and advice. Additionally, we have great support available through the Wellbeing network group, while fully trained Wellbeing Champions across the business can provide an essential ‘sounding board’, as well as advice and signpost further support.

Personally, I will always be grateful for the help the company gave me a few years ago. I have no doubt that it kick-started my recovery, but without me taking the decision to go to Occupational Health, that recovery would not have started and I would hate to think where I would be today. Ultimately, we need to get to a place where anyone can come to work and know they can be completely transparent – without fear of being labelled or judged – about the way they are feeling, the impact work is having on them, and the issues and concerns keeping them awake at night.

Ways to volunteer

For anyone looking to volunteer, I strongly recommend finding something you can relate to, you have experienced and/or feel passionately about. This will keep you hungry to learn more. Many charities (including Dorset Mind) provide basic training to get you up to speed before you commence your role, which is a great way to learn more about a subject or an organisation that interests you. Before committing, consider how much time you have to give. You do not want to heap added pressures on yourself by neglecting family or other commitments. My role with Dorset Mind takes about three hours a week (outside of work hours) and I can choose to decrease or increase that as I want.

Also find out what is involved – is it face to face? Does it require working weekends? Will you have support? Will you work alone? Most importantly, is it for you? Ask as many questions as you can and remember that nothing voluntary is compulsory!

The value of volunteering

Giving makes you feel good! There is a reason it is part of the NHS 5 steps! Smiling at somebody, paying somebody a compliment or giving to charity all have a positive outcome (try it!). My giving could be interpreted as self-serving, since I decided to do it to support my own recovery. Like many others who have struggled with mental health though, I wanted to share my story and support people who were going through their own struggles.

This alone is enough and the main reason that I continue to give my time. However, another benefit has been the realisation that mental health illness is no different to physical health; everybody has it, it can affect anybody, it goes wrong, but support is always available. If more people understood this, perhaps more people would feel comfortable talking about it.

Volunteering has given me the opportunity to meet new people and has boosted my confidence so much that I now have absolutely no problem talking about my own experiences and will continue to do exactly that in the hope that it encourages others to talk more.