I thought long and hard about this blog, and whether or not I should write this at all. I have been toying with the idea for a few weeks. In the back of my mind, there is a thought that speaking up may make it more difficult for me to secure work in the future. Such is the potential stigma of talking about mental health. But if no one speaks up nothing changes. So I am going to talk about my personal experience in the hope we can be more open, and make real changes in the workplace.
Last night (28th May), on the BBC, the Duke of Cambridge, HRH Prince William talked eloquently about the need to tackle mental health issues, particularly with men. Men culturally find it difficult to talk about personal mental health, especially in the workplace. The more senior you become, the more it is expected that you should be a leader, you should be tough you should be resilient. So in my experience, mental health in the workplace is rarely talked about between men in an authentic way. I use the word authentic in a very deliberate way. There is lip service, and there is authenticity.
Here are some facts about mental health and men
Many companies have started to talk about mental health. The industry I work for, the oil and gas industry, has started to talk about mental health more. The oil and gas industry is not the natural home for talking about mental health. We created the myth of the 'North Sea Tigers', the hard men and women who work offshore, tough resilient men and women who get the job done. A pull-no-punches kind of industry. Shape up or ship out.
The industry has talked about mental health much more in recent years, I became personally involved in the conversation. We talked about mental health as a leadership team, we trained mental health first aiders, we created a wellbeing community. I travelled offshore and I talked about mental health and my own personal experience with (mild) depression. I talked about it openly with my colleagues, I talked about it openly with my seniors. The job I had put me under a lot of pressure, and during the early part of my tenure, I really suffered with from work-related stress, lack of sleep, bouts of depression and erratic behaviour. I was fortunate that I got some professional coaching and started to rationalise the situation, becoming much more present and resilient in my role. I ended being OK mentally, and in my own mind, I believed day-to-day I was doing a good job. I recognised the same issues in others and reached out to help them. As a senior leader, talking about my own experiences seemed to make life a little better for others. I was proud of the part I played in mental health awareness.
Then, eights weeks ago, I lost my job. I knew something was changing in the business, and as a senior leader on a high salary you know it is the risk. The higher up you are, the harder and bigger the fall. My dismissal from service was a brief ten-minute phone call and that was that. End of the road. There was some followup from HR, some communication about assistance with placement services, but nothing much came of it. Most of the following communication was about the settlement, legal advice, an exchange regarding the calculation of my settlement and usual non-disclosure-agreement. The whole conversation was about finance, settlement contracts, what I would be able to say (or not say) once I left the business. For all intents and purposes, I was set adrift.
For me, finance was the easy bit (luckily). The really hard bit was suddenly having my daily routine taken away. Interaction with people I had worked with for two and a half years stopped overnight. I lost my sense of purpose and I suppose I lost part of my identity. I buried myself in a new purpose, setting up my own business, which gave my focus. I did talk about how I felt and I reached out to my old coach, who helped enormously with my mental wellbeing. A few people did call me up, but to be honest it felt like they were attempting to alleviate some of their own guilt by making sure I was 'OK'. Again the focus of the conversation was financial (are you OK financially). But they never really asked me if I was really OK. I said was OK, but I was not really OK. It was a hurtful, disappointing and humiliating experience. I felt despondent and lost. Would my family still respect me? Can I still support my family? Would my reputation be diminished? Would I be able to find another job? This is how people feel when they lose their job.
No doubt many who have been through the same thing have felt exactly the same way and my industry does like to hire and fire (because that is is how we roll, big bucks, big risks etc.), so there have been a lot of casualties over the years.
I am OK now. In fact, I am more than OK. I am enjoying new challenges, learning new things, working with new people, enjoying the sunshine and getting out and doing the thing I love, riding my bike and coaching others to ride bikes. But I will not lie, there are still moments when that feeling of a lack of worth comes back to me in quieter moments. I choose to talk about those moments with people I trust.
But here is the rub, the industry is talking about mental health. I have talked about mental health with the workforce. I took part in mental health initiatives. I feel like a fraud now. I feel like a fraud because my last company invested in mental health, but at the most impactful moment of my life, no one asked me the simple question 'Are you OK? At least not in a really authentic way In a sense I am not part of their future anymore, so the duty of care stops.
We have all heard the term 'Green Washing'. Green Washing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company's products are more environmentally sound. A common criticism of big oil to the point of being a cliche. To me it feels like we are 'mental health washing', conveying a false impression that we genuinely care about peoples mental health. I feel guilty that prior to me losing my job I engaged in 'mental health washing'. The evidence to me is that mental health care is something we need to be seen to be doing to keep the workforce happy, rather than something we are doing because we genuinely care about the people who work for us. Do we genuinely care about people? It does not feel like we do.
I do get it, sometimes business has to make difficult decisions. I am not saying that from a logical business point of view I should not have gone. I probably should have. We were not a good fit with each other. It is not a bad business I left. There are good caring people I respect enormously still working there. No doubt it will succeed in the future, I still have a vested interest with some shares in the business. I wish the business best of luck and good fortune.
But if you really care about people, you should and must support people through a difficult change.
All it takes is one simple question:
'Are You OK'.
But you have to mean it. Really mean it. Otherwise just be honest and stop the 'mental health washing'. It will harm your business reputation in the long run if you are not authentic when you talk about mental health.
If anyone is going through a difficult time in the current environment and suffering through losing their job. I am happy to talk. I want to know if you are OK. I can share my experiences and talk about the positive action you can take to feel good about yourself again. There is life after losing your job. You can contact me in confidence at firstname.lastname@example.org