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Let’s keep talking about mental health!

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Life at the CMA

Today is ‘Time to Talk Day 2018’. This is an annual fixture that brings people together across the country to get talking and break the silence about mental health problems.  Here at the CMA, we’ve been making quite a fuss – with people sharing their stories over the Intranet, a short update with our senior leadership team, a talk by former Rugby international Harvey Thorneycroft and a general knowledge quiz to bring people together this evening. We have also been inviting colleagues to make personal pledges to identify one action we can take to improve our own, or others’ well-being.

For the CMA, today also marks a year since our Chairman, David Currie, signed us up to the Time to Change pledge to tackle mental health stigma and discrimination at work.  I blogged last year about why and how we decided to take that important step, which was one of the proudest moments of my professional life. Today, I’m going to reflect a bit about some of the things we’ve done over the past year to try to live up to this commitment.

Encouraging people at the CMA to talk about mental health has been central to our efforts to build an inclusive and diverse working environment in which people feel able to express their whole selves at work.  We’ve done this in a few ways.

I and other colleagues have talked openly about our own lived experience of mental ill health.  I had never tried to conceal the fact of my mercifully brief, but nonetheless terrifying, experiences of acute anxiety and work-related stress in my 30s. However, I hadn’t really considered sharing it at work – it felt like something in my past from which I had ‘moved on’ – until challenged by my excellent colleague Nisha Arora to commit to a specific action to promote diversity and inclusion at the CMA.  I’m so glad that I opened up about this part of my life – as well as the great satisfaction of seeing the positive impact my disclosure has had on others, it has enriched my relationship with my work colleagues by opening up the possibility for more emotionally honest conversations. People also occasionally stop me by the lifts and ask me if I’m OK, which is lovely.

I think it’s important for leaders like me to be open about times in our lives when we have been vulnerable.  This sets the tone and makes it OK for others to talk about their own challenges. It also helps tackle prejudice that people dealing with mental help difficulties are in some way “not up to it”, or need to be given light duties to avoid stressing us out. The world is full of people who are achieving phenomenal things while managing difficult feelings – think Michael Phelps, Kelly Holmes, Demi Lovato or Bruce Springsteen, if you are on the lookout for role models in the worlds of sport or music.

However, I’m quite conscious that as a white, male, forty-something senior manager, my experience may not resonate with all my colleagues. It has been really positive that others in the CMA have also felt comfortable enough to share their stories, whether in small groups, in blog posts on our intranet, or as part of our series of internal “Tea and Talk” conversations. Through these channels, colleagues at all levels of seniority have shared moving stories about experiences of managing depression, living with an acquired brain injury, recovering from eating disorders and the stresses and strains involved with supporting loved ones with mental health difficulties.

We’ve also been keen to talk about ways to promote positive mental health.  Resilience has proved to be a very helpful concept for us and we had an outstanding talk by Dr Bill Mitchell last March, which was attended by around a third of the organisation.  We’ve invited colleagues including members of our Senior Executive Team, such as our Chief Economist Mike Walker and my own manager Rachel Merelie, to share details of how they look after their own wellbeing.  Exercise has featured quite heavily in these accounts, as well as making time for family and close friends. While I’m a cat person myself, the healing powers of dogs has come up more than once…

I’ve focussed on talking about mental health, but just talking to people and making a connection is really important. The CMA is a hard-working organisation, full of people who are hugely committed to delivering great outcomes for consumers, but we are also trying to create opportunities to spend time together socially in order to get to know each other better.  For example, we held a picnic in Bloomsbury Square to mark the Great Get Together in honour of Jo Cox, we had a family day just before Christmas following our annual “Search for a CMA Santa” and have channeled our competitive instincts with after work quizzes. A number of teams have been on volunteering days, which presses pretty much all of the wellbeing buttons I can think of.

Finally, if we want to encourage people to talk about mental health, then we also need to be good listeners and be able to engage with what colleagues are telling us, showing compassion and responding appropriately.  We have therefore also been investing in mental health awareness, including by training more than 20 mental health first aiders, and inviting Mind to deliver a half day mental health awareness training course for around 70 front line managers. We have complemented these targeted sessions by inviting external perspectives including from Jonathan Phelan at Evenhood, Katie Evans at Money and Mental Health and Nancy Hey at The What Works Centre for Wellbeing.  While expert support will always be needed for people experiencing severe difficulties, developing a greater baseline appreciation of mental health issues across the CMA, has a really important role to play in identifying issues early and helping people take preventative steps to safeguard their own wellbeing.

So that’s some of what we’ve been up to.  There’s still plenty more to do, and we’re certainly not going to stop now. Last year’s excellent report by Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, and Lord Denis Stevenson called "Thriving at Work" has set out what all employers need to do to promote positive mental health. The civil service is fully signed up to this, under the expert leadership of Jonathan Jones, the Civil Service Health and Wellbeing Champion. We will be using the report’s recommendations as our guide to see what more we need to do.

Stay healthy, keep talking and – if you’re having a hard time – always remember that you are not alone.

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