Empathy Costs Nothing: Why Leaders Need to Speak Up About Mental Health
There is never a bad time to talk about your mental health.
I often speak about men’s mental health, specifically my own personal journey, whenever there is somebody willing to listen. The main reason behind this is because for the vast majority of my life keeping quiet about how I felt inside was normalised. Rarely would anyone ask ‘How are you feeling today?’ and as a child showing any form of emotion that wasn’t “masculine” enough was swiftly ostracised.
As a direct result of this rather unhealthy approach to mental health, I found myself struggling as an adult during periods of high stress at work. I’m always trying to be a better version of myself today than I was yesterday which means pushing myself to do more, but for the longest time, this would only ever end in burnout. At the time when this happened, I didn’t realise I was constantly burning out, instead, I thought it was similar to the feeling of an intense workout. I convinced my mind that after a short rest period I’d come back stronger, but the reality was any strength I did have was being taken away from me.
I’ll never forget one incident that happened in the workplace which became a turning point in my mental health journey. Each year I attend a Sikh retreat camp which happens in August. For me, this is the highlight of the year because it gives me an opportunity to both reflect and reset, take a break from the outside world and really focus on myself. One year when I tried to book the week off it clashed with another colleague’s holiday which meant I wasn’t able to go. I was upset about this for quite some time but tried my best to not let it affect my performance at work.
The year started off as expected and by the end of Q1, I was performing well and got the good news that this Sikh retreat camp had been pushed back a week which meant I could go because that week didn’t clash with any of my colleagues holidays, so I swiftly booked it with a smile on my face. This gave me something to look forward to and I pushed through Q2 having a very good half-year under my belt. By the time Q3 started, there was a lot of change at work and the levels of stress went from intense to unbearable. In the back of my mind, I kept saying ‘just keep going and then rest during your week off in August’. I was literally counting down the days until my break.
As much as I tried to push through, the levels of stress were taking their toll on my mind and body. I couldn’t sleep, my digestive system was a mess and most days I was either very sad or very angry. It got to the point a week before my holiday where I had to call in sick for work. I told them I was unwell but didn’t tell them the specifics of why I was unwell because for me speaking about my mental health was still a taboo topic. All week I just lay on the sofa unable to properly function, trying my best to get ready for my holiday the week after. My manager was not very nice during this week of sickness because it meant extra work for them. A few days in I got a text saying ‘It’s a bit odd you’re sick the week you couldn’t get off at the start of the year?’. Talk about kicking a man whilst he’s down!
I managed to recover a little and attended that Sikh retreat camp which was perfect for me as it allowed me to rest my restless mind. I came back to work and my manager didn’t ask how I was but instead told me about how many sick days I had left and if I take too many they’d have to decide whether to pay me. To this day I’m grateful for this heartless treatment I received because it gave me the courage to actually speak up about what I was going through. I was not prepared to sugar coat it anymore and found there’s more strength in talking about your struggles than hiding them, and when we openly speak we give others the opportunity to understand rather than assume. I made it clear to my manager at the time the levels of stress at work aren’t working for me, and to my surprise, they were incredibly supportive once they understood the bigger picture. They put in a plan to help me and also made sure to ask how I’m feeling during our monthly check-in.
I feel humans by nature are very empathetic, but we’re not mind readers. Unless we are transparent about what we are going through then we cannot expect others to understand or speak up. After this incident, I realised I can’t be the only one feeling like this so I spoke up about mental health, including my own experiences, to the whole department which really started to change the culture within the workplace. All of a sudden everyone was talking about mental health, including men, and people were finally getting the support they needed to cope with the stresses at work. It was amazing to see how quick people were to open up once they realised senior leaders do genuinely care about staff mental health and are willing to put things in place to help.
Empathy really does cost you nothing and is the root of any sustainable mental health policy, but we have to be vulnerable enough to speak up about how we really feel.
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