David Kinder, deputy director, workforce, pay and pensions, HM Treasury, discusses dealing with stress and helping employees’ mental health
My own personal struggles with depression and anxiety in a workplace setting began in 2006. I had just joined the Treasury as a keen and ambitious new graduate, wanting to do well. From the beginning I found it difficult. And not necessarily because people were telling me things were going wrong. But I looked around me at very capable and intelligent people, doing brilliant jobs. And I thought to myself “I’m never going to be able to do that”, or sometimes “I’m not good enough to work here”.
I did what I now know is the worst thing to do in those circumstances when you are doubting yourself and you need support. I didn’t tell anyone. I thought if I worked harder and with longer hours, that I could prove myself. Over a period of about 9 months, I steadily got worse, until I had a breakdown. Fortunately, I had the sense to go and see my doctor, I was prescribed time off work, I took anti-anxiety medication and slowly but surely, things started to get better. Six weeks later, I went back to work - and went straight back into old habits. Twelve months later I had a similar episode.
That was the start of a very different way of managing my mental health, and how I work. I counted myself as lucky. I got great support from my managers, family and friends. I learned how to do things differently, and haven’t had another episode for 10 years now.
But I kept seeing other people in my organisation suffering from similar things. So I began to talk openly about my own experiences, and got increasingly positive reaction. Two years ago, with the support of our HR team, we decided to launch an employee-led “Mental Wellbeing Network” to reduce discrimination and help promote peer-to-peer support for all staff going through mental health problems.
We’ve had great success. We launched our network with a bang and had a big sign up event with the Chancellor, George Osborne, and the organisation’s senior leadership team.
Two years later and we have over 60 members, all of whom are staff volunteers, and who take time out of their day job to help promote better policies to support mental health.
We run an event every month to create a regular presence in everyone’s minds. One of our most successful events saw 250 people listen to three of the most senior people in the Government talk about “my biggest failures” – showing staff that it’s ok to make a mistake.
We have designed and run employee-led sessions for staff and managers struggling either with their own mental health and wellbeing or trying to support and manage people who are. We’ve taken the best guidance and practice for supporting people from national charities and organisations in mental health and rewritten them to be relevant for the people who work in our building. Working with our HR team, we’ve trained people to become Mental Health First Aiders.
And we’ve tried to benchmark what we’ve done and show the results to our senior management team. Once a year, we brief our Executive Management Board on the progress that the network has made. We highlight places where stress and anxiety and sickness absence are greater. And we get a commitment right from the top that the Treasury values its staff and backs our plans to support their mental health.
So our network is now in year three, and we’ve begun to deliver a real change in culture in our workplace. But we don’t want to forget the core thing that brought us all together – anyone, at any time, can suffer from poor mental wellbeing. And we want our organisation to be as supportive as it possibly can be to help people get better.