Mental health is not a weakness – we are all corporate athletes
- 11 Min Read
“We need to do more to develop language around mental health” says Jessica Carmody, Senior Manager at KPMG. Carmody heads up KPMG’s internal ‘Be Mindful’ mental health network, empowering all employees to articulate their own feelings towards mental health. Carmody is one of our HRD Connect’s Mental Health Role Models, advocating that it’s ok for leaders to talk about their own battles with mental health.
Carmody tells us how she not only manages her own mental health, but ways in which managers can help employees feel secure and accepted within organisations.
Would you say that mental health is discussed enough within business?
Within the City of London, I can certainly say there has been a positive upturn in discussions around mental health. The City Mental Health Alliance is a forum where city businesses, like KPMG, The London Stock Exchange, and The Lord Mayor’s Office get together and discuss shared issues around mental health. We need to deliberately keep talking about this topic, and I think it takes practice to talk about it – as we need to do more to develop language around mental health, ensuring we are comfortable talking about it.
Have you personally had any negative experiences at work due to bad communication around mental health?
At a previous role, after working intensively over a very sustained period of time of working on a very intense project I felt my mental health suffer. My resilience was being pushed beyond my limits and I asked my manager if I could go home for the afternoon, due to feeling extremely overwhelmed and low. Her reaction wasn’t particularly supportive; however, she did essentially say that I could go home but she wasn’t very compassionate at the time.
“It’s the same as spraining your ankle when you’re running, it’s a temporary thing and it doesn’t have anything to do with your overall fitness or skill as an athlete.”
I felt like I’d done something wrong and it was a weakness on my part. Shortly after I returned to work I was taken off the project I’d spent all this time on. Whether or not this was intended as a compassionate act, the communication was poor and it would have been a lot better if she would have included me in these discussions about what was best for me and continuing on the project or not. This has certainly stayed in my mind and I have learnt as a manager now not to do this to members of my own team. I think it’s best to be very open. It’s very important to not make assumptions and it’s ok to feel undereducated, and fine to admit that you don’t know much about mental health if that’s how you feel. You need to ask your employee what would help them, and work on it together. It’s important to champion employees who are courageous enough to tell you how they are feeling, as it’ll build trust between employee and manager. Having a figure of support is vital; often the people confiding in you about their own mental health will feel self-doubt, guilt and shame which comes with that kind of illness – it’s such a comfort to be treated equally.
How can employees feel more empowered communicating their mental health?
As an employee, in the workplace one of the biggest worries is that your mental health is having an impact on your overall role performance. But in actual fact it has nothing to do with your overall ability. It’s the same as spraining your ankle when you’re running, it’s a temporary thing and it doesn’t have anything to do with your overall fitness or skill as an athlete.
“If we can start differentiating skills and capabilities from a period where in which someone is under strain could be very powerful, people need to know they are not weak.”
I talk about us in this profession as being ‘Corporate Athletes’ because we are essentially trying to do something really hard… We work in pressurised environments over a sustained number of hours and to then do it over a continual period – rather than doing it over a shorter time more intensively. Our working lives require this to be over a longer period of time. To do that you have to take care of yourself very well. However, even if you follow all the right wellbeing techniques that are good for us we can still sprain our ankle in a corporate sense, we can still get to the point where our resilience has been tested and we become overwhelmed.
It can feel like a weakness, but this is not true, it’s just that you are experiencing something short-term or that your health is struggling. The person that you are, and the skills and capabilities that you possess still exist in the exact same way they did before. I think we sometimes forget this, your first initial thought might be, ‘I’m no good’ and a vulnerable mind makes you believe these things.
“If people say, ‘how are you?’ and I might respond saying that I’m not well which instantly makes them think I have a cold, but then I explain that I’m not very well in my head, or my mental health isn’t great. I’ve started using this language quite frequently in a workplace setting, I’m hoping it will open up further conversations to allow other people to share how they feel.”
A manager or leader’s role in this scenario is crucial, they have the power to reinforce this way of thinking or lead the individual to believe in themselves. If we can start differentiating skills and capabilities from performance in a period where in which someone is under strain this could be very powerful: people need to know they are not weak.
What can managers and leaders do to change the way they manage people?
It’s natural to be apprehensive about conversations on topics where you haven’t necessarily had them before. I think it’s fine to feel nervous about building the vocabulary up. I’ve certainly had conversations with colleagues I manage about illnesses that I knew nothing about and I hope I’d never discriminate between any illness. The most important thing is that you as a manager care and you want to help, which will involve a lot of listening. Work with employees and colleagues in a tailored and considered way where trust is fostered.
Have you personally suffered with any mental health issues?
Yes, I have depression, mixed with anxiety.
I was diagnosed in 2001 although I suspect I’ve had it since my teenage years. I’ve had severe periods of depression, and I’ve been in hospital twice in the last 4 years. In 2014 I had two weeks in The Priory and then three weeks in The Priory in 2016. The second time was particularly hard because I was angry about being there. I’d been trying so hard and I’d learnt so much about how to take care of myself, but it just goes to show that it’s an illness and you can’t control it – just like you can’t control cancer.
PQ: We need to develop a language around the way we talk about mental health.
In the workplace I’m very lucky to have a good support and I’m very lucky at the moment to have very good health. I tend to be very honest with people about how I’m feeling. If people say, ‘how are you?’ and I might respond saying that I’m not well which instantly makes them think I have a cold, but then I explain that I’m not very well in my head, or my mental health isn’t great. I’ve started using this language quite frequently in a workplace setting, I’m hoping it will open up further conversations to allow other people to share how they feel. I sense people are getting more used to me saying it, however I know it’s not something commonly said – like I said previously, we need to develop a language around the way we talk about mental health.
How much does KPMG encourage employees to talk about their own mental health?
When I joined KPMG in 2014 I saw the dedicated KPMG magazine called Highlights which is about colleagues and keeps everyone up-to-date about what is going on in the firm. I noticed an article about one of the partners within KPMG who had depression and how they’d decided to be open about it – this was amazing for me, as I personally had depression and I’d never seen that level of honesty before, especially from someone in a senior position.
I had just come back from America where I’d lived for two years, it had been very challenging and was an entirely different culture. Coming back and getting a new job was quite a big adjustment, therefore, I was already in a state of mind that was very susceptible to my mental health deteriorating – which is what happened. Shortly after joining I became ill and spent some time in The Priory.
“Work with employees and colleagues in a tailored and considered way where trust is fostered.”
When I came back to work I really wanted to get involved in mental health advocacy within the firm. I wanted to create a sense of community at work for myself and others. I met the senior colleague who had previously shared their story in the Highlights magazine and was also running the ‘Be Mindful’ mental health network at KPMG, which I joined, and I now chair.
I started to do speaking engagements about mental health at work and my own mental health which is when I decided to do a personal campaign Redefining Resilience. This campaign was about defining what resilience meant to me and how I think the term is sometimes misused, particularly in corporate spaces. Sometimes people go on ‘resilience’ training – it’s easy to say to someone “Your resilience is low” and tell them that they need to go on resilience training but in actual fact quite a lot of the people who work in corporate environments are incredibly resilient and will push themselves to effectively run the 26 miles of the marathon, then run another 52 miles. In theory, it’ll take them 100 miles to get to breaking point. Therefore, telling someone that they are not resilient is rather insulting and undermines an already high performing person’s self-esteem and self-worth because they are already resilient.
Having an experience where perhaps the person is under-resourced to sustain them against the demands of an unrelentingly pressurised corporate existence is very different from not having enough resilience to cope with the normal demands of life. One of my key hopes from that campaign was that employers would partner with an employee and help them to have an incredible number of resources or at least understanding that and certainly not putting all the onus on an employee. I want people to know that having depression will not stop you from achieving great things, and it doesn’t mean that you’re not resilient.
What should managers not do in these instances?
Often when we don’t know what to say, we don’t say anything. As an example, if you say nothing when someone comes back to work who has been away with poor mental health they will feel unsupported, and probably isolated. It’s incredibly important to behave the way you would when considering any other health condition and to certainly not avoid the topic or speaking with the individual because you’re afraid of what to say. When I was off with depression the last time, a few people texted me and it was really helpful to have that because it made me feel like people were not at work whispering about me. I wrote back to a few people when I really didn’t want to at the time telling them that I was in hospital with depression – I knew that if I didn’t communicate it would look odd and others wouldn’t understand. The fact that people took the time to contact me really helped and when I came back to work everyone was very normal with me. I encourage this when similar situations happen with other colleagues it’s important to treat it like any other absence.