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HR's mental health: Letting people in is hard but necessary

For a new series of columns we're asking HR professionals to help get the conversation going on HR's own mental health by sharing their personal experiences

I’m writing this on the Eurostar one Thursday evening as I return from Brussels, having spent a few very interesting days at a CBI leadership event during a critical time for the Brexit debate. I've been very reflective ever since I was asked if I would write a brief article on mental health within HR. The time on the Eurostar at the end of day seemed a perfect time to start writing.

As I reflect on the important and often demanding role we take within the business, I’ve concluded that we are not great at looking after ourselves. People are not always easy to deal with, they can be incredibly unreasonable, and quite often the business looks to us to solve the various challenges that arise. But we are human too and there are times when we need support.

I am convinced that employee wellbeing is soon going to become the number one ask and expectation from employees – not surprising considering we are all likely to be living and working longer. However, it’s also about doing the right thing and giving people the tools – as we do with their technical and professional development – that provide the personal support they need throughout their careers.

I always thought I was invincible and could pretty much deal with anything, personally or professionally, after starting my career on the shop floor at Ford Motor Company. I also thought I had seen it all and was unshakable. None of this turned out to be true.

I was married for 19 years and with my partner for 24 years, and we had two children. Unfortunately my partner’s mental health started to decline when my youngest son was two, and progressively deteriorated over the next few years. It got to the point where he couldn’t go to work, or even go out of the house at times, and he preferred to stay in bed. At the same time his behaviour worsened – he became very angry and unreasonable and drank large amounts.

That got very difficult and quite scary for both me and the kids. It got to the point where he was very paranoid about where I was going and who I was talking to, and he would follow me – even to work. Or he would break into my email or answer my work mobile phone if it rang.

This didn’t suddenly happen overnight but rather slowly over time. Increasingly I was living two lives – one at work and one at home. I was trying to keep all the plates spinning being a full-time carer for two children and one adult. But it got to the point where it wasn’t sustainable and something had to give. It couldn’t be me as I was the one holding it all together. But I was hanging on by my fingernails.

So I made the decision that I and the boys had to get out of the relationship and divorce was the only option. All very difficult... but here came my life lesson. I tried to do it on my own. My employer didn’t know what was going on, I didn’t talk about it at all, and to be honest that was probably part of me trying to keep it all together. Plus I didn’t know what to do or where to go for help.

A BBC programme changed that when I saw an interview about someone who was in almost exactly my situation. They gave out a helpline number for domestic abuse. I rang and was given a lifeline: understanding and support. It then took me another year of planning to make my exit.

A couple of things made that possible for me:

  • My friends and family – I had to talk to them very openly about what had been going on. For many it wasn’t a surprise as they had seen a decline in my now ex-partner and had witnessed some of the behaviour.
  • I had to temporarily turn down the thermostat on my career and move to a role that was not so demanding of me – both mentally and travel-wise – just to give me the time and space I needed to focus on me and the boys. I continued to work flexibly during this period, which really helped, and once I opened up I had a very supportive boss. If I hadn’t I don’t think I could have kept all the balls in the air.
  • I had the support of helplines and networks and these made a huge difference. Too little is known about these and we tend to think about the individuals that have mental health issues rather than their families. Most importantly I was no longer trying to deal with this on my own.
  • I recognised that I had to look after me so I had hypnotherapy and counselling initially, and then some very intense coaching, More recently I started talking therapy as I recognised that I hadn’t really dealt with it all and moved on. Some of the scars remain and are deeper than I ever realised.

What I’ve learned most is that my roles (that of a single mum and HRD) are both challenging, and it's really important I take time out to decompress and look after me. I had always put myself at the bottom of the list, but actually I need to come first to ensure I can do all of the other things.

I've given you the abridged version here. But the greatest thing I have taken from all of the above is the importance of being authentic and sharing my story in the hope that it will help others to share theirs. I am now so much more open, and it helps.

Most importantly I don’t want anyone to ever feel the way I did – that horrible feeling of helplessness and not knowing where to go for support or who to talk to. I've realised the importance of everyone being able to look after themselves and being given the resources to do this. We all have times when we need to turn the dial down on our careers so we can take the time we need on other aspects of our lives.

Which brings us back to the importance of wellbeing programmes and policies in the workplace. But it goes beyond that; it's about recognising that everyone has a life outside work too.

Annette Andrews is chief people officer at Lloyd's of London

Further reading

It's not weak to struggle with mental health, by Gary Cookson, founder and director of EPIC HR

Is HR consultancy the answer to the work/life balance challenge?, by Emily Perry, head of HR at The Shore Group

Is HR neglecting its own mental health?

Dealing with a personal breakdown: One HRD's story

Would you be interested in sharing your experiences to help support other HR professionals? Please do get in touch with HR magazine if so on: jenny.roper@markallengroup.com