If you’re going through hell, keep going – an HR practitioner’s mental health journey
Chartered HR practitioner and the founder and former CEO of Roots Human Resources CIC
Jan Golding is a chartered HR practitioner and the founder and former CEO of Roots Human Resources CIC, a social enterprise dedicated to elevating people management within the not-for-profit sector. She has also been a member of the Mental Health at Work Leadership Council since its inception.
She is now semi-retired, chairs the Board of Directors at Roots HR and works part time as a self-employed HR consultant.
Here, Jan shares her own experiences of poor mental health, how it impacted her working life, and the advice she wants others going through similar tough times to know.
Content warning: this blog mentions suicidal thoughts.
Over 30 years ago, when I was 24, I was forced to accept that the way I was living my life was affecting my mental health. I was in field sales, on the road, selling advertising from 7am each morning, working 14-hour days and doing admin at the weekends. I was highly driven to beat my targets and be the top salesperson and I thrived on the euphoria of success for quite a while.
But, increasingly, I became burnt out. I wanted to escape, but I earned a good salary and had a nice company car and couldn’t find a less demanding job with a package to match that. One morning, I woke up and realised I didn’t know how to cope with what felt like a situation in which I was trapped; I knew life shouldn’t feel like that but suicide felt like the only way out.
I couldn’t stop crying. A friend made sure I saw a doctor that day. They went through a list of symptoms with me and I had many of them. I was diagnosed with chronic anxiety and depression and it was a huge shock; until then, I had thought I was invincible!
Eventually I accepted I was living with a mental health condition brought about by stress and I’d have to find a way to make some changes. Looking back, I can see I had massively high, unrealistic expectations of myself and that I had been living with many of the symptoms of anxiety and depression through all of my late teenage years and early 20s.
It was a very low and difficult point in my life
I had 6 months off work from that point. My employer sacked me after two months because my doctor couldn’t commit to a date when I could return to work. My company car was gone, I had no income, it was a very low and difficult point in my life and I was grateful to the friends and family who stuck by me.
I realised afterwards that many of my colleagues also burned out and left that employer; turnover was very high. There was nothing like the same protections in employment legislation in the early 1990’s as there is today.
I had previously loved the intellectual stimulation of my job but fully expected at that stage to never work in a professional capacity again; I thought no one would employ a field sales representative with a sickness record for stress. I was newly married, we needed both incomes to pay our mortgage and I was certain I was now unemployable and we would lose our home.
Drugs for anxiety and depression were a bit ‘trial and error’ in those days but my doctor eventually prescribed me some medication and we found I responded well to a very low dose of it. I was also referred for counselling and that made all the difference. Talking therapy helped me to gain perspective on going back to work and the value I could continue to offer a future employer, as long as I am fit and well. I went back to work in a different sales role, part time for the first few months and then full time but I bounced around a few roles until going into retail management in my late twenties.
I learned to recognise signs of my own stress levels being too high
I studied and became a chartered HR practitioner in my early thirties but even then, my roles were still usually field-based, with long hours of driving on top of full days of meetings. The difference was that I thrived on my work after making that career change because I really loved what I was doing.
I had also become a great deal more aware of my own capabilities and limitations, which made me more measured in the way I approached my work. I learned to recognise signs of my own stress levels being too high and to re-prioritise and to talk situations through with people who could help me. I’ve always held on to the insights I gained when I went through counselling.
I later got into triathlon and found I had to accept so many highs and lows with it, it really is the perfect overachiever’s antidote to the stresses of modern life!
I think I’ll always be ridiculously driven; I have had many periods in my life of working very long hours since I returned to work, especially when I was running my own business. But when I work long hours now, I do it temporarily, because I choose to, and because of what I know the end result will be. I take the view now that nothing is more important that our health and it makes sense therefore to look after our own wellbeing and that of the people that matter most in our lives.
If you find yourself in a situation like I was experiencing, tell someone you can trust that you need help. Try very hard to do this, it is so important. It might be a family member, a friend, a colleague. It’s ok to cry, you’ll probably feel confused and overwhelmed and you’ll feel like people think you are imagining things or making a mountain out of a molehill.
Tell them you need them to be with you while you call your GP or other services for support. That trusted person can help you not to trivialise the situation, to explain how you feel and to overcome any barriers in getting help.
Things will get better, but that might take weeks or months
I also encourage anyone who finds themselves in this situation to recognise that the thoughts and the inner dialogue you are having at that time are because you are unwell and for no other reason. They are not how you’ll feel if you give yourself time to recover. Things will get better, but that might take weeks or months. You’re not weak, you’re not a failure, you just need time and help to mend and get your mental strength back, in the same way you would rest a broken leg to allow it to heal.
On four occasions over the years, I’ve had a friend or a colleague come to me because they feel they can’t cope with life any more. Each situation has been different but we’ve started there and then with talking and moved on to find them medical support and friends and family to support them and to help them stay safe and recover. Each of them has later told me they don’t know what might have happened that day if they hadn’t found someone to talk to when they needed it.
When it comes to the workplace, any employer of any size can support the mental well-being of their staff; it is about management style and not money. I personally learned the hard way that no one can pour from an empty vessel and the peaks, troughs and demands of consultancy work mean we need a strong, resilient workforce.
Since our first employee at Roots HR, I’ve always made it a priority to look after our people. We ensure that our team members routinely work no more than their contracted hours. If they occasionally work overtime, it will never be more than 10% of their working week and we always pay them for it.
We try very hard to make it OK for team members not to be OK
As a way of life, we check in on well-being with one another and with our clients and suppliers. Every meeting, internally or externally, starts with “How are you today?” and we mean it. Every stakeholder is worth not just our courtesy but our support and we do whatever we can to provide that.
We hold regular one to ones with all team members at Roots HR, the first priority being to ensure everyone has a safe space at work to talk if they need it. We try very hard to make it OK for team members not to be OK and to be supported in challenging times in whatever way they need.
Finally, we researched and found an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) which is affordable for us and probably would be for most other micro employers. We offer it to our own staff and recommend it to our clients. That means we are able to offer confidential support and counselling to our employees when they are at their most vulnerable. It demonstrates our commitment to them and it has, as just one example, helped us to get a team member going through a difficult time to get the support they needed and to come back to work without the inevitable delay of waiting for counselling on the NHS.
There’s a saying, isn’t there, that ‘if you’re going through hell, keep going’. I firmly believe that. Try to form a realistic view in your head of how you might hope to feel, and how you might like your life to look different for you in, say, three months and do just one little thing to move towards that, every day.
And remember – talk to someone.
Did Jan’s story resonate with you? On Wednesday 8 November, Mental Health at Work’s Sarah Merrington will be speaking at the CIPD ACE conference in Manchester along with other industry professionals to share advice for HR staff on protecting their own wellbeing.
In the session you will:
- explore how to take care of the mental, emotional and physical well-being of your people professionals
- gain insight into where and who people professionals can go to have healthy conversations around their wellbeing and if they need support
- hear about what skills and tools people professionals need in order to look after their own wellbeing whilst helping others
- understand what your organisation can do to support the wellbeing of your people professionals.
For more information and to register for a ticket, click here.