Written by Alex Holloway
Mental health, well-being, physical health, work-life balance, workload, back pain, loneliness…just a few phrases that came out of a short discussion about mental health in the Language Centre. For a while, now, I have been promising my (incredibly supportive) line manager a blog on this very subject. The time seems right.
In her article for the Guardian, ‘It’s nothing like a broken leg’: why I’m done with the mental health conversation’, journalist Hannah Jane Parker makes a convincing argument against the amalgamation of depression and anxiety with what she calls ‘more unpalatable’ mental illnesses. I agree. However, speaking from my own point of view and experiences working at the Language Centre, I believe we need to address something slightly different: the conflation of wellbeing practices with provision for those of us who live with and manage any sort of mental illness.
Before I go on, I would like to address the issue of language. I am very aware that I may use terms in this blog which some may disagree with. Mental health and well-being is both a ‘ubiquitous hashtag’ (Parker, 2020) and a socio-politically charged area of study and activism. I have studied, worked with and lived with mental health problems for long enough now to feel confident to speak my own truth knowing that it may both touch nerves but also bring much-needed awareness or even comfort to others. So, I pause here to apologise in advance for anything I may say which may unintentionally cause offence. On the other hand, I do not apologise for anyone’s discomfort due to disbelief or skepticism.
I am not trying to create an ‘us’ and ‘them’ here. But the reality is, for me and other colleagues in my situation, well-being discussions about where my desk is or how often I need to go for a walk is sometimes about as helpful as plugging a volcano with a baby’s dummy. To be frank, I have psychological and neurological disorders which commonly fall under the terms anxiety and depression. I take a significant amount of medication and have spent a great deal of time and money on various therapies. I have identified myself has having a psychological disability. Again, just to stress, this is how I choose to express my difficulties: others may use different words and terms, or not even talk about it at all.
I have decided to structure this blog by presenting some workplace practices, behaviours or interactions that have been unhelpful to me with the reasons why. These are each followed by some of what I have found to be helpful. I know that there is an incredible amount of helpful information out there but I seek to contextualise this in my role as a teaching fellow in the Language Centre.
Unhelpful: unclear boundaries & uncertainty
I feel very privileged to work in a job where I have such a lot of autonomy. As with any place of education, it is difficult to pin down all responsibilities in a job description. I noticed this most when I was a programme leader. This, though, can bring trouble for sufferers of anxiety disorders. It intensifies constant thoughts of underachievement. For me, it also feeds my internal narrative of self-contempt. Unclear or unspoken expectations can also lead to either overwork or over-procrastination; both, I find, are just as exhausting as each other. The recent pandemic is a great example of a time when roles were understandably unclear. Coupled with the potential for isolation – especially for those not in teaching or management teams – I have to confess that I was concerned for many colleagues.
Helpful: knowing we are good enough
The psychologist and paediatrician, Donald Winnicott, talked about the ‘good-enough parent’. I remember vividly hearing about this idea years ago – I was struck by the kindness and positivity it embodied. Being good enough is achievable and it is, well, enough. I’ve found it to be an incredibly helpful concept to strive for and share with others, especially those who have anxiety or intense feelings of self-doubt.
Unhelpful: ‘Calm down, you’re over-reacting’.
As colleagues, we can perpetuate a feeling of underachievement by holding up the I’m-too-busy-to-talk people as the most worthy of praise. A friend of mine calls this ‘the stress badge of honour’.
Perhaps this is unfair or at least changing thanks to our current working situations. The Language Centre newsletter has provided several ‘pause for thought’ articles which encourage us to reconsider such values including Jennifer Moss’ ‘Burnout is about your workplace, not your people’. In it, she talks about ‘Maslach’s pebbles’, “the tiny, incremental, irritating, and painful stuff at work that can wear you down”. Also known as ‘micro-stresses’, I am sure we are all familiar with the little things which build up to the final straw; that inconsequential email which just tips you into frustration.
For those of us living with anxiety disorders, this wearing down is nourishment for our negative self-talk. I’ve had a few seemingly petty emails that have led to horrible anxiety attacks. Believe me, I know that I’m overreacting but in the moment it’s incredibly hard to gain any sense of perspective. I’ve had moments like these at work, after which I’ve felt deeply ashamed and worried. I’ve also witnessed colleagues in this state. Psychological distress should never be an excuse for bad conduct, but it is important to give someone space and time without talking about being ‘unprofessional’.
Helpful: Being aware of micro-stresses
At the end of the day, we are responsible for ourselves: creating our own boundaries and workload, communicating our needs and being self-aware enough to know when things are starting to go wrong. But perhaps it is also useful to have a shared understanding of how even the smallest requests or demands can affect others.
Unhelpful: “I had a friend who was depressed but she took up running and now she’s fine”
Taking exercise, having a good working space and eating well helps me, as it would anyone. However, these things are not a form of prevention. Going for a run is not helpful to me when I can’t get out of bed because my limbs feel like lead. Beth McColl’s 2018 blog post “I Have Depression and Anxiety. Please Stop Telling Me to ‘Go for a Run’” says it all. In it, she makes some excellent points about the intense, life-limiting fatigue which depression and anxiety can bring. She writes,
“trust that people with mental health disorders are far more aware of our limits than anyone else is. Practice compassion by not making assumptions about what we can and can’t do.”
Helpful: Making a Crisis Plan
In my experience, the Language Centre systems and staff have been incredibly helpful when I’ve been in a state of crisis. I’ve been given time off, phased returns and, as I say, lots of support from line managers and other colleagues. At the moment, I hope to thrive rather than survive – this is my aim.
However, I know that there will be times when I am unwell, times when my depression really hits, times of exhaustion, guilt, hopelessness and an inability to get out of bed (remember those films from the 70s of sinking in quicksand?). For times like this, I have a crisis plan. This is essentially a list of things to do which I know will eventually bring me hope. They include walking the dog for at least 10 minutes and having a shower.
Crisis plans should be written when you are feeling well. Write a list of a few simple yet joyful things which you can do without questioning when you are unwell. And then, when you feel unwell, just do them. I find it helps to maintain the motion of moving just a tiny bit out of that quicksand.
Unhelpful: “But you’re ok now, aren’t you?”
Yes, right now I’m well. In my own way. But my ‘well’ is not the same as anyone else’s. My ‘well’ is also managed with a lot of effort and it is precarious. I am not in crisis, thank you. But am I surviving or am I being given (and taking) the opportunity to thrive?
Helpful: We all have the potential to thrive
When talking about our propensity for self-actualisation, Carl Rogers famously pointed out that even a potato left in the dark cold cellar will sprout shoots. We all have a biological drive to thrive and be well. Interestingly, Lev Vygotsky also uses the metaphor of the teacher as a gardener. In both cases, in order to grow, we need an environment that is supportive and nurturing for everyone.
I would argue that the Language Centre is fabulous at dealing with times of crisis. I am grateful for this but I would also encourage us to consider ways in which our everyday working environment help everyone to thrive, no matter what their psychological needs. This leads to my final point.
Unhelpful: “Don’t we all”
“Don’t we all” is a common response to the disclosure ‘I have mental health problems’ (perhaps an argument for using the more forceful term’ illness’ or ‘disorder’). I appreciate that it normally comes from a place of kindness and empathy. I think those that have said it to me intended to make me feel better by normalizing what has been a taboo subject for so long. Indeed, it’s because of this stigma that I often hedge my language but let’s be clear; I really hope that everyone isn’t living with problems like mine. Of course, not everyone is comfortable enough to make such a disclosure but, if you are lucky enough to not have these problems, please do not try to make it seem like they are too common to be concerned about.
Helpful: Acknowledge psychological hazards
I recently stumbled on a fabulous document written by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. In it, mental health is perceived as unique to each individual:
“A state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
The same document, which is essentially a toolkit for implementing national health and safety standards, talks about psychological hazards. These are ‘elements of the work environment, management practices, and/or organizational dimensions that increase the risk to health’.
Psychological hazards are those things which stop us moving and thriving. I hope that I have shown so far in this blog, though, that our ability to psychologically thrive and keep moving – our individual states of wellness – are situated along a very diverse scale.
Imagine a big box which has been left in the middle of a corridor and you are hurrying down. We all know this would be a health and safety hazard, somehow impeding everyone’s movement, irrespective of their role or status. Those people who are do not have any physical impairments might just step over the box or go round it. But someone who has physical impairments will be impacted more. This is what I mean by individual states of wellness.
Who is responsible for hazards at work? Everyone. Anyone could pick that box up and move it but it might be heavy. If that’s the case, someone might need to make a call. This is where hierarchy/management roles come in; it may only be someone in a certain role who can create change. But maybe they haven’t been down that corridor so they’re not aware of it so they need to know. And don’t forget, if that person ‘in charge’ goes down there, they too might have difficulties moving.
So, whilst we don’t all have the same issues, problems or illnesses, mental health and wellbeing is a collective endeavour. Some changes can only be made by certain people but they need to know about it in the first place.
I would therefore welcome more investigation into the psychological hazards that we, as colleagues, are each facing and explore ways to manage or reduce them – either systemically or simply through the way we treat ourselves and one another.
I began this blog with a plea for acknowledgement, for a request to be seen as someone with mental health problems rather than wellbeing issues. I hope that others who are in a similar situation feel a little like they have in turn been ‘seen’ in this blog. This is particularly important to say at the moment as we are all working at home in our separate physical and psychological worlds. The fatigue and hopelessness which I speak of can be a real barrier to someone asking for help. So, I end this blog by a plea for us all to make contact with others, especially someone who you haven’t heard from in a while. Please don’t leave it to them to be proactive.
I also hope this blog serves to reassure anyone who may be struggling that there is support. For every unhelpful comment, behaviour or system, there is someone who will do everything they can to help you both survive and thrive. So, please do not be afraid to share your struggles and your needs, no matter how slight or severe.
I have embedded all the references to sources within this blog as hyperlinks so that I can focus on a few choice links here. Please feel free to add any helpful sources or thoughts in comments below.
In the University of Leeds
The HR mental health for staff page has plenty of links and documents
You can also join the university’s Staff Mental Health and Disability Network via The Equality Policy Unit’s website.
Beyond the University of Leeds
The Mental Health Foundation has both short simple explanations of mental health along with more detailed guides.
The Blurt Foundation is my favourite ‘go to’ place for resources, including some great stuff for friends, partners and colleagues of people living with depression and anxiety.
Mindwell is the central signposting website for services and support in Leeds for mental health as well as housing and money issues.