London Wellbeing Week: This Is Me

Today London Higher is beginning a week of intentional focus on mental health and wellbeing ahead of University Mental Health Day on Thursday 5 March.  Wellbeing and mental health for students and staff is rightly a national key priority for universities and HE colleges in London, nationally and internationally. Institutions in and outside the capital will be marking the day.  Moreover it is a national issue, relevant to everyone and wherever they may be, and not just one for the HE sector.  In this blog I focus in particular on mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, and introduce the This is Me initiative.

Until recently for someone to admit they were feeling low, stressed or anxious was, as I know well myself, to be told to ‘buck up’ or the like.  I remember vividly being told to ‘snap out of it’ when I was full of grief after the death of my mother.  Neither these nor of course more complicated conditions were properly understood – and a lot stigma was attached.

Like most people of my generation, for me and my mental health it was a case of trying to ignore the fact I suffered from bouts of anxiety and depression.  Whether at work or at home it was not a discussion to open up and so I kept it to myself.  Luckily for me these episodes were not as prolonged, deep or frequent as they are for many – and (helped by the fact I could throw myself into sport for many years) I got away with it and managed to get by.  I have written before about the time my luck ran out and I experienced a crisis episode back in the early 2003.  I then had to take complete stock of the situation and for the first time admit I needed help.

Since that low point I have become more self-aware and better to identify what works for me.  I have also learned to recognise when things take a downward turn and so I can put strategies into place that help to mitigate this.  More fundamentally I have (somewhat belatedly) learned that I am very far from alone, that there is help and support available (much more these days, thankfully) and that I don’t have to be silent.  In fact being open is empowering.  To me nowadays doing what I can to be supportive and encouraging to others – particularly for me those at work- has become extremely important.

A couple of years ago through colleagues at Barclays I became aware of This is Me. This is Me in the City was launched through the Lord Mayor of London’s appeal in 2016.  It is a mental health campaign that ‘..aims to reduce the stigma of of mental health in the workplace, to dispel the myths around mental health in work, and to raise awareness about the importance of wellbeing.’   *For a more detailed description see below.

Many sectors, and businesses, in and outside of London have adopted This is Me. Barclays kindly shared with me insights about how This is Me has grown and developed throughout that organisation, as you can see here. I have also been This is Me. I am always struck by the power of stories told by people who are successful in, or are growing, their careers, of their mental health journeys and how it has been for them, and their thoughts about keeping well.

Today there are a growing number of businesses, including global corporations, who are keen to develop and invest in corporate support mechanisms, and many employees including senior leaders willing to share personal stories. This in an effort to challenge the stigma and break down the barriers within the workplace, and offer constructive help and advice to colleagues at wherever stage of their career they may be.  For smaller businesses not readily in a position to develop bespoke materials for colleagues, there are toolkits, advice and guidance that are freely available from support organisations such as Time to Change, Mind and the Samaritans, plus others.

It is not hard to introduce This is Me and certainly not the story telling element into a workplace – including a higher education workplace.  One of the hardest part is perhaps to find people who are willing early on to talk with their colleagues (including their leaders and managers) about their stories and share their thoughts on coping strategies.  Having senior managers do this is not essential – but arguably makes a real difference.  Doing this is – as I can attest – not easy but I also know it is worthwhile.

In June this year, with support from the Lord Mayor’s Appeal, I hope that London Higher will introduce This is Me to London’s HEIs.  One thing we will be looking for is people willing to take part in the launch event so that we can give a flavour of what a This is Me story telling session can look like.  It would be fantastic if colleagues reading this who are interested in sharing their story – or the story of someone very close and that has touched them – could contact me.  I would especially like one or two heads of institutions, or colleagues on the directorate tier, to get in touch.

I have – I think – led a pretty full life at and away from work and have got to a place I am reasonably happy with in a career sense.  The fact that from time to time the black cloud, as I call it, decides to hover overhead is just the way it is. It is possible to find ways to get through the murk – and it isn’t (or shouldn’t be) seen as ‘weakness’ or some sort of burden for employers. Yes, reader – This is Me and I am happy to wear the green ribbon.

*This is Me is a pioneering mental health initiative that aims to change attitudes towards mental health in the workplace and support organisations to create healthier and more inclusive workplace cultures, improving employee wellbeing.

It does this by providing employers with the tools they need, through three initiatives. It helps raise awareness through the Green Ribbon campaign, creating a visible movement of support for ending the stigma around mental health. It aims to end the stigma and open up the conversation through This is Me storytelling, which encourages employees to share their lived experience of mental health. It also builds employees’ skills to manage their own mental health, support their colleagues and feel confident to have conversations around mental health, through the Wellbeing in the Workplace e-learning tool, developed in partnership with Samaritans.