Catherine McLeod: It's not a weakness to admit to mental health issues

In another of our series on mental health, the chief executive of the charity Dingley's Promise says opening up with staff about her own anxieties has emboldened others to talk about the issue

Catherine McLeod
Catherine McLeod

It is estimated that one in every four people in the UK will experience mental illness at some point each year. That is 13 million people. If you imagine that is a quarter of all the people you know, then think about how many of those people have actually told you about their mental health concerns. So many people feel alone with their worries, fearing that others will see them as weak if they find out about their mental health issues.

On World Mental Health Day yesterday, I wrote an email to all of my staff in which I told them my own story and about the pressures I have to deal with related to mental health. I had conflicting emotions before I sent it, wondering if they would see me as less of a leader for doing that.

What came back to me was a flood of emails from people saying they too had to deal with either their own issues or those of close family members that had, at times, left them feeling exhausted and alone. They talked about having bad days when they found it hard to work, and how it was upsetting when others made light of conditions that were very real to them.

It is amazing how opening up made so many other people feel they could open up too. People said they had no idea that I had to deal with things like that, because I always seemed so strong, but of course at times I feel overwhelmed just like anyone else.

Charity workers are an amazing bunch, people who believe passionately that what they are doing is right and care deeply for the people they work with. We talk about how we can make things better for others, volunteer our time, push ourselves hard to make a change in the world and feel grateful to be able to work in jobs that means so much. But we also often deal with difficult situations, with the stresses and sadness of others, and feel that when so many around us are struggling we have to be the strong ones all the time. We are more likely to do unpaid overtime and skip holidays, and less likely to prioritise our own health because we are so focused on the wellbeing of others.

I believe this is where charity leaders have to take a responsible role and ensure that they look out for their staff, building systems to promote wellbeing and reduce stress. They must not fall into the trap of allowing overworking or underpayment in the name of charity, but ensure all staff have the right work-life balance and are paid fairly for what they do. Yes, we have to meet targets and funding is always tight, but we must reward and care for our staff properly in the same way that we care for our beneficiaries.

One of the most important things any charity leader can do is to open the conversation. Share your stories from your management teams with your trustees and those working directly with your beneficiaries. No one is immune, and experiencing mental health issues is not a weakness. Make it acceptable to talk about mental health, and build trust to ensure your staff feel able to ask for support when they need it.

I closed my email with the words: "Take care everyone, be brave and be honest, and know that we are there for you if you need us." I felt brave when I sent my email and, now that I have had feedback from staff, I know it was the right thing to do. That honesty and willingness to be a little vulnerable has emboldened others to do the same and start important conversations. So, as a charity leader, do think about strategies and processes to support wellbeing, but don't forget that the biggest impact can come just from being honest and open.

Catherine McLeod is chief executive of Dingley's Promise, a charity that provides support to children under five with additional needs and disabilities, and their families

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