This week we came across the story of Mandy Stevens, the NHS director of mental health. After working for 30 years in the healthcare industry and dealing with the issue of mental health on a daily basis, Mandy suffered a breakdown. Almost overnight, she went from functioning as normal to not being able to function at all “…to being so wracked with anxiety that she couldn’t leave her bedroom, couldn’t change her clothes, couldn’t even bring herself to clean her teeth. She had spent nearly 30 years on the frontline of mental health care but, within ten days, she became a patient herself.”
Mandy believes that in many ways she has been lucky. She had the means to go straight to a private psychiatrist when she initially felt at risk, rather than sit it out on a lengthy NHS waiting list. She also happened to live in an area where mental illness is catered for better than it is in the rest of the country.
Looking back, Mandy says the depression had probably been brewing for some time, as the pressures of a demanding job began to get on top of her and she unwittingly began to isolate herself socially. Work-related stress and anxiety accounts for 37% of all work related ill health causes. And 45% of all working days lost is due to stress and anxiety. If we try to power through the stress and keep working as best we can, it can, like in Mandy’s case lead to a breakdown.
The guardian covered mental health at work over a series of articles this week focusing on building resilience in the workforce. Hayley Lewis talks about resilience training, and how important it is to equip the staff working for you to deal with stress, anxiety and change. Change can cause many people to worry about their future, Lewis’ article outlines an example of how resilience training over two years improved customer service, reduced complaints and staff developed a better work-life balance without a drop in productivity levels.
Victor Smart and Kim Thomas state that one of the key things organisations can do is give staff access to individual resilience training and staff assistance hotlines. Equally important is developing and enforcing organisational policies on bullying, whistle-blowing, dignity at work, remuneration and work-life balance. Smarter work design and flexible working hours can also help.
Jacqueline Tate, workforce projects manager at Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS foundation trust, says working there can be highly stressful, because it’s a “moving environment – there’s constant restructuring going on”. Clinical staff, she adds, have to deal with a “particularly difficult” client group.
Aware of the stress staff were experiencing, the trust introduced a system three years ago, whereby if a staff member goes off sick with a stress-related condition, their manager has to contact them within 48 hours. If it seems unlikely they’ll be able to return within two days, the staff member will be referred immediately to the occupational health team, which then directs them to the trust’s in-house counselling service or, in more serious cases, psychotherapy.
Sarah Johnson talks about Dr Laura-Jane Smith; When Laura-Jane Smith took time out of her clinical training for a PhD, she found she was constantly unhappy, and suffered from palpitations, nausea, severe headaches, and breathlessness among other physical symptoms.
The hospital doctor’s days were dominated by negative thoughts. She recalls: “I once walked for 30 minutes with ‘I hate my life. I hate my life’ on a loop of internal monologue that I feared had no end.” Eventually, Smith was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and ended up leaving the PhD.
She is not alone. Countless healthcare professionals suffer from burnout, depression, anxiety and addiction, due to heavy workload, long shift hours and feeling unable to take time off work to recover. Former medical director Steve Boorman, who is honorary professorial fellow of the Royal Society of Public Health, found that health workers often did not prioritise their own health. “They did not want to take time off as they felt patient care would suffer when temporary cover was needed to replace them,” he explains.
Smith, who is back at work after seeking help from the NHS Practitioner Health Programme and undergoing therapy, says that finding a space in life for creativity also helped her.
Anxious to prevent a relapse, she has made herself a number of promises: “I will take all my annual leave, I will say ‘no’ more often to extra work tasks, I will value activities that make me happy. By making time for the things that recharge me, I am now more effective – a better colleague and a better doctor.”
The message here is clear; look after yourself, and you can look after others. To organisations; look after your staff and they will look after your business.
In case you missed them, below are links to the stories mentioned above: