Employees leaving high-pressure jobs need support

People working in high-pressure environments often experience issues when they leave these ‘comfort zones’, according to a panel speaking at an 87% launch event

Andrew Graham, lieutenant general and chairman of the board of trustees of veterans charity Combat Stress, spoke of his experiences leaving the army. Virtually his entire family have been or are soldiers, he said, explaining how hard it was when “[he] found [himself] an adult civilian for the first time in [his] adult life” after he “left an organisation where [he] was known and cherished”.

“I haven’t found leaving easy, so when you employ servicemen please do realise they find it a bit difficult sometimes,” he said.

Also speaking on the panel was Pete Lowe, former Manchester City Football Club head of education and performance management and founder of First Team. He described the difficulties he encountered leaving football.

“After 13 years at my last club I’d become known as the person who could solve problems… absolutely anything – like registration of a boy from Slovakia...” he said. “But eight or nine months ago I broke down… I was trying to solve a problem and because I was no longer in my comfort zone I couldn’t solve that problem. I found myself in a place that was frighteningly challenging to me.”

Lowe explained that although he thrived on dealing with high levels of pressure for many years, he realised this had taken its toll when he left that world. Since his breakdown it’s been about coming to terms with his “demons” and speaking out to lessen the stigma about mental health and as a kind of “therapy”, he said.

“Now I’m not ashamed. But I was at first; I was utterly ashamed,” he said. “It’s about making your demons your friends. I’m no different to anyone else; I just know those demons now.”

Also speaking on the panel was Pauline Nelson, HR director at Racing Post. She shared the HR challenges of ensuring strong mental wellbeing among a workforce of hard-working journalists and digital natives, many of whom enjoy gambling.

“[Gambling] is fun as long as it’s under control,” she said, explaining that the challenge is that “these guys don’t come and tell me they’re gambling” or that they have a gambling problem. “So the approach we take is raising awareness,” she said.

The organisation has held manager training on responsible gambling, she reported. “There’s not many courses I run where people come into my office and say ‘that was amazing, thanks very much',” she said. “When somebody does have a problem there are now plenty of eyes and ears in the organisation to help.”

The panel also discussed the important role strong leadership and culture play in mitigating stressful environments. Lowe spoke on the unfairly negative press young football players get, arguing that bad behaviour is often largely the result of lack of direction from their clubs or from older players.

“What young players follow is a culture. If that’s fractured you create fractured mindsets,” he said, adding the importance of players knowing that their managers have got their backs even when things are going badly. “It’s having a standard of performance that doesn’t change just because [the leader is] under pressure,” he said.

“If you want the best from people they have to understand that you’re with them,” he added. “It takes a strong mindset in the boardroom to say ‘I know why we just lost that deal’” rather than berating people for it, he said.

Graham said that trust in leadership is not about trusting people to do their job, but the leader trusting their team enough to show vulnerability. He also highlighted the difference, in his eyes, of commanding and leading.

“Command sets the direction of travel and atmosphere for the organisation,” he said. “So you command a platoon you don’t lead it; otherwise they just follow one behind another.”

The event was held to launch 87%’s mental wellbeing platform, which aims to help employees and employers measure, understand and improve mental wellbeing, using seven dimensions.

Introducing the panel, executive chairman of 87% Richard Glynn highlighted the value of tracking mental health. “The problem with mental wellbeing is it’s intangible; we can’t hold it, we can’t grab it,” he said. “But if you can measure it you can action it.”