Today is Time to Talk Day 2019, an opportunity for everyone to have a conversation about mental health.
In this blog, I'm going to share some of the challenges that my family and I have had to deal with over recent years and explain how the ability to talk openly with colleagues here at the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has enabled me to manage my own mental health in the face of adversity. I'll conclude by looking at some of the things that we at the CMA have been doing to help create a culture of openness and understanding about mental health at work.
My recent family history
The period from the birth of my third child in 2004 to around the time of the London Olympics in 2012 was a very happy, stable and prosperous time for me and my family. We had 3 young children, a full set of 5 functioning grandparents (modern families …) and I was loving my new job at the, then, Competition Commission.
This idyll was shattered one afternoon at work, when my wife called, in tears, to tell me that her father's cancer had returned aggressively. Within a year he had died. We were immediately faced with the challenge of looking after his grieving and confused widow, whose dementia was further advanced than we knew. We tried to settle her in her home in Devon with a live-in carer, then brought her to London to live with us for a while, before making the inevitable but emotionally draining decision she would need to live full-time in a residential care home.
While my mother-in-law was still living with us, my wife started to notice our middle daughter, Eloise, was becoming withdrawn and was losing weight. This turned out to be the first symptoms of an acute, sustained and complex mental health condition that required lengthy periods of in-patient treatment as well as vigilance on our behalf when she was at home. Tragically, Eloise took her own life last April, aged only 17. We are all still coming to terms with such a massive loss.
It's good to talk
At the risk of indulging in British understatement, it has been a difficult few years.
One thing that has really helped me survive such a traumatic period has been my choice to be open with colleagues at work about what I have been going through.
In part, this was driven by practical considerations. My family responsibilities have, at times, placed intrusive constraints on when, where and how I have been available for work. This has ranged from strict adherence to '9 to 5' office hours (entirely valid, I hasten to add), through taking significant amounts of time off to attend hospital appointments, to 'dropping everything' for 2-3 weeks to deal with crises. I wanted colleagues to understand the reasons for my absence, so that we could make suitable contingency arrangements and that things did not get left undone because people thought I would be checking my emails, when that wasn't the case.
But I was also mindful of the emotional benefits of sharing my experience. This was partly informed by an earlier period in my life when I had kept various issues to myself, leading over time to a full-blown mental health crisis. Being open and honest with trusted colleagues over recent years has enabled me to get some sort of perspective on things and has given them the opportunity to show great kindness to me, particularly after Eloise's passing, for which I am very grateful.
Mental health at work
During the past few years, I have also taken on the role of the CMA's senior mental health champion. This was partly in response to my earlier experience and because I had been inspired by Eloise's courage in seeking to tackle her own mental health challenges.
Last year, the CMA published our Mental Health at Work plan, setting out our vision and commitment and describing our ongoing efforts to promote good mental health in our workplace.
An important focus of this plan is to create a culture of openness and understanding, so that all colleagues can benefit from the type of support that I have been shown over recent years. There are three main elements to this:
- Developing mental health awareness – we’ve been doing this in several ways, for example, through training leaders and managers in mental health awareness and by running events to help all colleagues develop their personal resilience. We’ve also been trying to make the CMA a safe space for colleagues to share their lived experiences, for example through holding workshops and writing blogs.
- Encouraging open conversations - raising awareness of mental health issues is only part of the story. We should all be able to talk openly about mental health, so that we are able to access support when we are struggling. As part of this, we have trained several cohorts of mental health first aiders in both our London and Edinburgh offices, and we were lucky enough to hear from Poppy Jaman MBE, the founder of this movement last year.
- Improving disclosure of mental health difficulties - we are working hard to make it easier to disclose mental health conditions and support colleagues to stay well and in work, for example by using our Employee Assistance Programme - which offers CMA employees up to 6 free counselling sessions over the phone, online, or in person. There is a big element of trust involved here - people need to have confidence that they won't be disadvantaged by their openness - and our success in this area will be measured by how we act, rather than what we say.
I am very proud of our work in this area and of the efforts of numerous colleagues across the CMA and other employers to improve our working environment and culture. My hope is that young people entering the workplace now and in the next few years will be joining more open, supportive and healthier places to work, which recognise that life isn’t always straightforward.
Let’s keep talking!