Lucky people - there's an extra blog this week! Today it's National Time To Talk Day, encouraging people to speak out about mental health and to stop the shame and silence around it. It's something Darren Ryemill feels passionately about and something that's driven lots of the wellbeing initiatives offered at Opus. And it's also something he has a personal experience of which is why he thought it would be the perfect day to talk…
Firstly, I'll start this blog by saying that talking about mental health is not always a very comfortable thing to do. There's a stigma around it, a lot of negative words like 'nutter, bonkers and mad' and it can be difficult for people, regardless of their age, job or anything else talk about how they really feel. I know this because in the last few years I've been diagnosed with stress, anxiety and depression myself at various points - and that's why today, on national Time to Talk Day (run by the brilliant charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness) I want everyone to know there's no shame in speaking out.
The official statistics are that 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem this year. Personally, I wonder if the figures are higher than that because so many people are still scared to speak out. But the point is, mental health issues can affect anyone at any time. But there are people that can help you, you don't need to suffer in silence and there also are some ways, I believe, that you can help yourself.
Whenever I tell people about my own experiences or when depression comes up in conversation, I'm always amazed by how supportive and kind people are with their offerings. That's not to say that everyone fully understands - a common reaction can be a bit like reverse one upmanship, 'look at you, you've got nothing to worry about, you're secure financially whereas look at poor Bob, he's just been made redundant.' But it's nothing to do with Bob - it's about you - and you're allowed to not be OK.
The way I think of it, personally, is that the brain is a part of your physical body, just the same as a leg or an arm is - and that it's probably unrealistic to think you're going to live for 80 or 90 years without a part of it needing attention at some point. There's no shame in that, it is what it is.
My own story may be similar to that of many other business people - I didn't realise I was suffering because I was wearing some of my behaviours almost like a badge of honour. I was working really hard, building my business up, struggling to sleep, checking my phone a hundred times while I was on holiday and I could never disconnect from my work. At the time I thought all of these were great things, I thought that's what you needed to do to be successful. But looking back, the reality is I was severely stressed. I was suffering from anxiety and wanting to be in control of every part of the business, all of the time. I felt like everything would fall apart if I wasn't constantly 'switched on.' Alongside this, I was going through a divorce and struggling to come to terms with not seeing my children all the time. I felt completely out of control - so I got help.
But whilst I'm not saying it's something people should strive for, I also wouldn't change my story. Some of the things that have caused my stress or anxiety are because of what I believe are positive virtues - hard work, wanting to provide for my loved ones, trying to be a good person and trying to do a good job. It's ultimately because you care about stuff that you get anxious about it and stressed - and being caring, working hard and providing for people you love - these are all positive things. These were the driving force in me growing a business from scratch to a £100 million turnover. I recognise that how my brain works and some of my behaviours have helped the company's success. For example, I'm dyslexic and I'm pretty sure if I was at school today I'd also be diagnosed with ADHD. I have a very short attention span that my mates always take the mick out of, I make decisions quickly and I do things a little differently to lots of people. But I genuinely think those traits have also helped in my career. I was lucky enough to spend a week with Richard Branson recently, who is famously dyslexic - and he's said the fact he's been forced to think differently has been a huge part of his personal success.
So I really believe that certain behaviours went from positively driving me and spurring me on to harming me and affecting me negatively. It's a balance and I'm now always aware of this balance and watching for signs it's tipping the wrong way. And I've developed a few techniques that really help me.
I'm not a doctor and I'd never tell anyone what to do with regards to medication but I've personally been able to manage my depression and anxiety without it. Whether that's through talking to a counsellor or life coach or learning to give myself what I need. I've learnt little tricks to make myself feel better. For other people, medication works, it's just different people's needs but the main thing is - help is out there, in various forms. So I thought I'd share some of the things that have helped me.
Firstly, I love a phrase - and I've developed a phrase for whenever I'm feeling stressed. I tell myself 'stress is the luxury of the privileged' and it often allows me to feel privileged about the stress I'm feeling. I'll explain… if there was a tiger outside my office now and I could see him prowling up and down, I'd be sitting in my room feeling very stressed - to put it politely. I'd be fearful, anxious, worried about what would happen if he got in and what he'd do to me. But the thing is I'm only feeling that stress because the tiger is the other side of the glass. If the tiger was in my office I'd be running - pretty bloody fast - or fighting. My body would go into full fight or flight mode. I'd be reacting rather than feeling. So the fact I'm feeling stressed is sometimes because I'm not at the point of the fire - therefore I'm privileged, I have this luxury. I'm not for one moment saying 'aren't you lucky you're stressed' it's just something that has helped me manage it.
There are other practical things too. I've had periods in my illness where I would find it very difficult to get out of bed. But I know if I get out of bed I'll feel better than if I don't. In the same way, I know if I exercise, I'll feel better than if I don't. So if you're capable of getting out for a run or a walk then do. It doesn't have to be a marathon, it can be a ten-minute walk, but personally, I find that really helpful.
The same goes with connecting with people. This weekend, for example, I've been away with some old school mates and now I feel really invigorated - I know friends and fun and making time for that, makes me feel better. For a long time when the business was growing, I felt like I lost my friends, I actually kind of lost myself being honest. I'd stopped playing football so I didn't have that friendship group and I was talking about work to everyone else. Every minute of every day to every friend - and whilst I love my job, that's not healthy. So now I'm better at getting in touch with mates, going to watch football with them or a round of golf. Things that I know make me feel happier.
And telling people around you can be really helpful - in all sorts of ways. I know that when I'm feeling stressed I find it really hard to make decisions. I procrastinate, which is unlike me as generally, my attitude is to be fiercely courageous. Make the move and if it works great, if not let's try something else - has always been my approach. But I don't have that fierce courage when I'm feeling low - so I've told people around me that this indecision is a sign to watch out for, to keep an eye out for me. Just sharing that with the right people really helps. I know they've got my back.
This blog is a bit different to usual, it's very personal to me and my brain and its not going to be appropriate for everyone. But I will, just to sum up, bring it back to business as I work in the business of people. And I think there are a couple of things that employers, across the board can do when it comes to the mental health of their staff. It starts from asking your people how they are. Not just how they're getting on with work but how they actually are. And doing this in a way where an honest answer is encouraged. I'm not ashamed today to say I've suffered from depression, stress and anxiety and I don't shy away from it. I don't run around telling everyone I meet because that would probably get pretty boring. But I do understand that if you're someone who is prone to mental health problems, it can be liberating to hear it from others. Especially those in senior roles. People at my company Opus will never, ever feel mental health issues are shameful or career limiting for them because they haven't been career limiting for me. And that's why I think this day is so very important.
If any of these issues have resonated with you then do get in touch - with me or at time-to-change.org.uk. And let's spread the message that there's no shame in talking out #Timetotalkday @Timetochange
I'll be continuing this theme slightly in my usual Monday blog next week and telling you how to measure your life score - and why businesses should measure the life score of every employee. See you on Monday!