It’s 8:46am on the morning of R U OK? Day – Australia’s national day of action to remind everyone to stay connected and have meaningful conversations as a way to help anyone who might be struggling – and I’ve already spoken to three people with mental health issues.
First, the morning phone call from my mum, who hasn’t left the house for 10 months due to deep depression and bipolar. Second, a call from my partner, who has suffered from anxiety his whole life, and thirdly, popping upstairs to check on my housemate, who has been off sick the last two days with mental health issues.
It was this third conversation that I found most disturbing. I looked into my housemate’s eyes, and could tell she wasn’t ready to go back to work today. I insisted that the best thing she could do was take another day to look after her mental well-being. I knew if I were feeling as terrible as she was there was no way I would be expected to go to work.
She replied, “It’s fine for you Chloe, you can do that. I have to go in.”
On my journey into work, I reflected on what she had said. She was right – I could do that. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that I could take a ‘mental health day’ if needed.
But where had I got this sense of freedom and found the courage to put myself first? I wasn’t always like this – I grew up with the mindset that no matter what was wrong, you pulled yourself out of bed and got yourself into school or work or wherever else you were expected to be that day.
This morning, my housemate opened my eyes to the impact my company culture has had on me as a person and I wanted to write this article to share how work has given me this strength.
It’s not that we have mental health policies and procedures… at least, I don’t think we do. It’s more the sense of empowerment that is instilled into us.
So, if there are no set policies and procedures, what has created this?
You will often see mums and dads quite openly declare that they are ‘leaving early’, or ‘won’t be in until later tomorrow’ because their child is in a play or has a piano recital. When I first joined PHD four years ago, I remember being in shock about how vocal people were about this. They don’t sneak out the door; they say it proud with a sense of achievement.
There also isn’t a day that goes by where we don’t have someone’s child filling a desk or someone’s dog taking pride of place on a chair. This sense of family makes work feel more like home.
I think small things like this are the demonstration you need of the importance of work-life balance, beyond any policy that can be implemented.
Every ‘Careers’ page says something along the lines of ‘we CARE about our staff’. But what does this actually mean? For me, the proof point is ‘what comes first’. If someone has a problem personal or work-related, I know that our natural reaction is to stop. Pitch or no pitch, we stop and take time to talk to that person and try and help them resolve how they are feeling.
Even if there is nothing that can be done, they have the opportunity to share what is happening and not feel like the work is the number one priority. If they need to leave, there is always someone who can stand in and cover what is needed, and everyone is happy to take on additional work to help someone out because you know they would do the same for you.
Two types of visible vulnerability create a culture where mental health is okay to talk about in the workplace:
Senior leadership sharing their troubles with the wider agency is important for ensuring everyone knows and appreciates everyone is human. A bit like teachers at school, they gain your trust through sharing parts of them you don’t expect to see. I know that having an awareness of senior leaders’ personal troubles makes it a lot easier to open up.
The knowledge that you don’t have to be perfect. As a leadership team, we made a promise at our last away day: to always be the person asking the most stupid question in the room. Showing this vulnerability signifies to your wider team that it’s okay not to have all the answers.
This is my open letter to senior management everywhere as a call to action to instil a culture in which people don’t think twice about looking after their mental health. This comes from leading by example. Make sure you are looking after yourself, as by doing that, you are setting an example to everyone around you.