Adam Pemberton: Talking about mental health needs to be 'the new normal'

The Barnardo's director looks back at the mental health problems he experienced in a previous job, and concludes that communication is key

Adam Pemberton
Adam Pemberton

Suddenly, after decades of silence, it seems like everyone wants to talk about mental health and wellbeing, and what we, as a society, could and should be doing to look after ourselves and each other better.

It is obviously great news that a subject many have felt uncomfortable talking about for so long is coming out of the shadows. But one aspect of this new openness that particularly catches my eye is the research by the mental health charity, Mind, which shows that men are twice as likely to have mental health problems because of their jobs than they are in relation to issues outside work, but are also much less able to talk about them. It can be hard for men, young and older, to talk about their feelings and ask for help.

So I thought maybe I could start the ball rolling and share my story about a time when was struggling at work, what I did about it and what I learned as a result.

In the early noughties, I worked for a consultancy firm. It was fun, I got to do all sorts of new and interesting work and it felt like I was learning new things every day. I got promoted quickly, which was great too, until I was in a role where I was being left pretty much on my own to manage multiple projects at once. Yes, that meant I was sometimes doing things about which I didn't always feel entirely confident, but I really enjoyed the challenge and testing myself. And, anyway, I was pretty sure that I was invincible.

At first, and for a while, it was fine. But then I started lying awake at night, unable to get to sleep because there was so much "stuff" buzzing in my head. And then, when I did eventually fall asleep, I slept so shallowly that I would wake up after a couple of hours with my mind flitting from assignment to assignment. I began to feel physically sick for much of the working day, I stopped going to the gym and when I did take time off, at weekends and holidays, it was no longer enough to refresh me. Sunday evenings were increasingly filled with dread about the week ahead.

For me, the last straw was when I began waking up in the middle of the night, every night, staring at the ceiling and trying not to cry.

So what did I do? Well, the first step turned out to be simply acknowledging, to myself and to others, what was happening. And although it sounds obvious with hindsight, I was startled at the time by how the simple act of saying it out loud, first to my partner, then to my closest friends and, eventually, my boss, meant I began to feel a bit better in an instant.

And when it came to work, I was genuinely surprised by the reaction I got. My boss and I talked about what we should do and he was more supportive, caring even, than I ever anticipated. Although I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have at the time, I was incredibly fortunate to have a manager who responded so positively.

Interestingly, we agreed that what I absolutely didn’t want – or need – was for work to be taken off me. It wasn’t the volume that was the problem, it was recognising that I was struggling and working out some very practical ways he and others could support me. Which he did – and things began to get better.

Beyond that, I developed some simple – and, some of you might think, slightly daft – coping strategies to help me in the days, weeks and months that followed. For example, my homeopath neighbour gave me a treatment to deal with moments of anxiety. I didn't believe then that such things work (and still don’t if I’m entirely honest), but I found that just having that little brown glass bottle in my pocket gave me something to hold on to (literally) in the course of a day. And I took to wearing a pair of cufflinks I happened to have that were made of mini spirit levels. Every time I fiddled with them, they reminded me to try to keep "balanced".

Everyone will have their own version of what makes the difference, but these little things really helped me. Before I knew it, I was sleeping again and a cloud I hadn’t even noticed gathering above me dissipated more quickly than I would ever have imagined.

So what did I learn? Mainly, and by far most importantly, the act of acknowledging to others that I was struggling and talking about it made me feel so much better.

The next thing, still surprising to me today, is how effectively, without even knowing I was doing it, I concealed how I was feeling – not only from the people closest to me, but also, by all accounts, from my boss and my clients, all of whom thought throughout that I was still doing a good job.

But the saddest moment for me, once I began speaking about it, was realising how much bottling it up had hurt my partner. I suppose I thought, by editing what I shared, that I was being clever in saving him from hearing me complain about work. But what I was really doing was failing to see and respect that he was (and still is) always there for me, and that speaking is always better than silence.

Now that I find myself a leader and a manager, I realise how important it is to make it absolutely clear to others that they can share their own anxieties with me. And, if not me, then someone – anyone – else, rather than carrying it all by themselves.

Lastly, I like to think that I've learned to recognise in myself the difference between being busy and stretching into new spaces (which, for me, is what excites me about work and, incidentally, is exactly what brought me to Barnardo's) and when that becomes "too much". That threshold is and will be different for every single person, but I hope that I now know my own signs well enough to prevent a repeat of 15 years ago.

Looking back, I think I am lucky that this is the worst experience of work-related stress that I have to share. I'm conscious that many people's experiences are much more severe. But I hope that, by writing this, I can play a very small part in making it normal for these kinds of challenges to be discussed more freely.

I'm also immensely proud that Barnardo’s is one of 30 organisations that took part in Mind’s first Workplace Wellbeing Index and that we achieved bronze status in our first year. But we also recognise that we have much more to do as an employer and I look forward to us making progress together in the next round.

Oh, and I still have the spirit-level cufflinks and you might see me wearing them occasionally. But that's just because I think they're pretty.

Adam Pemberton is corporate director of strategy and performance at Barnardo’s

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