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Mental health was a different ball game twenty years ago!

By Romy Ashmore, Executive Assistant to Managing Director & Senior Leadership Team, RM Results

According to the World Health Organisation, Mental Health is “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”.

A few years ago, possibly more than a few if I’m being honest, when I entered the world of employment, back in a world where mobile phones existed to make calls and send text messages, work used to finish at 5.00 and re-start at 8.30 the next morning; the focus on mental health wasn’t really that great –  it didn’t need to be. People went home after work, had dinner with their families, went to the gym, played sports, or, if like me, went out for dinner, then to a club and, rather annoyingly, reminded all older colleagues the next morning of what it was like to be young. Bragging about surviving on practically no sleep and still being able to perform my job over and beyond the required standard.

Jump forward to 2015, the young me has matured somewhat, moved back to the UK and grown up. A night of clubbing now involves a lie-in the next morning and a duvet day in front of the telly, feeling guilty because I received an email at 08.37 on a Saturday morning which I have not replied to by 11.42.

BlackBerrys have been replaced by iPhones, which very helpfully send notifications so you don’t miss anything and that’s before acknowledging Siri and Cortana who very sweetly take the time to remind you of things you haven’t done… A Saturday planned in front of the TV watching “Notting Hill”, “About A Boy”, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Love Actually” quickly descends into a day of feeling guilty – it’s mad – it is a Saturday, I don’t work Saturdays.

The wonderful pizza delivery man arrives just after two, as expected – but I don’t enjoy my pepperoni and pineapple pizza because I’m thinking about “THAT” email – Hugh Grant and Colin Firth give me little solace; I can’t picture myself walking down the aisle in a big white meringue-style dress to meet Hugh Grant because I’m still thinking about THAT email that needs an answer. I’m waiting for a reminder from my Line Manager to tell me that he needs an answer ASAP. The dog is comfortable and snoring loudly on my feet so if I rise to get my laptop then I’ll wake him up. On a normal Saturday afternoon we’d both be snoring now, but I can’t sleep – I need to answer that one email before I can relax.

I try to pull my legs out from under the dog so not to wake him up, Rufus is known as “Master of the House” and it will cost me a fortune in doggy tripe sticks and venison sausages in return for forgiveness. He moves slightly and the DVD is still playing as I tiptoe through to the study and turn my laptop on. Sod’s Law – it needs to update and consequently takes fourteen and a half minutes to load up. I am hopping from foot to foot at this point; the dog is going to wake up but I’m two minutes away from a peaceful afternoon.

Eventually the email loads and I send through the required information, breathe a huge sigh of relief and look at my watch to see if it is too early for a swift G&T. It is Saturday, and it is now 3.47. If I had gone out for lunch I would have had a glass of wine, so why not? With my drink now poured and me sitting back in front of the TV, with the DVD re-wound, I realise that dog has hardly noticed that I had gone. Bonus. I’d forgotten how good the first G&T tastes but am sure that dog has been employed by Alcoholics Anonymous – I can’t get up to pour another as I’ll disturb him and I can’t do that again…

Dog and I are both dozing off when, Colin Firth is trying to ask Penelope Cruz to marry him in broken Portuguese when my phone pings again, “Thanks for sending the information through. I need this too. Sorry, forgot to ask before.” Talk about ruining a Saturday. At this point I swear. The dog has been settled for too long, he’ll never forgive me if I get up now. Working with different countries and different time-zones there is no way I can get out of not answering. This information needs to be sent.

I could ignore the email but then I have the fear that they might forget to pay my salary; they might decide that I’m really not essential and I really need this job – I have rent to pay, bills to pay and I can not survive without a job or a regular salary. I dutifully get up and send the required information, knowing that dog will never forgive me, but in order to keep him to the standard of living to which he has been accustomed, I need to work.

Monday morning looms surprisingly quickly – I am not relaxed, I am stressed. Whilst I have not been working all weekend, I have been thinking about work for most of it. Where has “MY” time gone? I reach the office and insinuations are made – “I could have replied more quickly. If the Company  lost this contract it would be my fault.” Not being the most patient person and certainly one who likes to be valued, I flip…

“Enough! Slavery was abolished hundreds of years ago – find someone else who is prepared to work 24/7 for next to nothing.” I walk out and phone my mum, who then phones my dad – between them, they decide they will support me, but I need to start applying for jobs asap. My brother helpfully suggests that a hotel chain is looking for cleaners and with a degree, I might have an advantage. But anything has to be better than a job I hate, a job which expects me to pick up the phone at any hour of the day, colleagues who have no compassion or understanding that I might actually need my own “personal space” from time to time.

Jump forward to 2018 – new job, new company – transparency, regular, scheduled PDR reviews and the opportunity to get involved in new initiatives. A team meeting asking for volunteers to become mental health champions and first aiders – I was one of the first to sign up, and it is one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’ll be perfectly honest, I actually expected, that as a qualified mental health champion, people would approach me, tell me about an issue; we’d go for tea and cake and put the world to rights.

Sadly, it seemed that the world had other ideas – March 2020 introduced fears of people being forced to work from home. A colleague approached me and asked how we could support people whilst working form home and I suggested the idea of introducing ‘Microsoft Team’ calls where people could join in and talk to other people. Aside from parents, children and partners, hearing a different voice could help people who were perhaps struggling, enabling them to take part in a different conversation and talk about anything from football to baking cakes.

The calls began well with numerous participants but as people became used to lockdown participation began to drop. Aware that we needed to upgrade the scheme, I spoke to my Line Manager about introducing a potential ‘Positivity Forum’. Originally, this was set to be a wall in the kitchen area of the office where people could write motivational quotes and encourage others. As it happened, lockdown took precedence, so we had to adapt plans.

With the use of Microsoft Teams, we introduced a ‘Let’s Chat’ Channel – literally a work Facebook page – a forum where people could share photographs of their pets, jokes and comments. This channel has evolved – we now have work discussions too, and people take the time and effort to get involved.

There is no trauma in not answering an email on a Saturday morning. The Executive and Senior Leadership Team all encourage employees to “#bekindtoyourself”, to take time out to do things that you need to do and ultimately and to do your best – we are all in the same situation, from CEO, to MD, to Account Director, to Receptionist to Office Cleaner – you get the idea?

Mental Health of twenty years ago was a different ball game!

Ultimately, in the current world it is expected and understood that most of us have our work email and Microsoft Teams Apps connected on our personal mobile phones. Effectively, this makes us contactable 24/7, and possibly the hardest challenge is knowing where to draw that line. A simple email asking to move a meeting at 3.00pm on a Monday in the middle of next month is not an emergency (or worth disturbing the dog for on a Saturday afternoon), but occasionally emergencies do happen and those do have to be dealt with.

It is time to sit back and make time for yourself and be kind to yourself. With the continued lockdown scenario, it is crucial that people receive as much support as possible – well-supported employees will provide all the input that they can, not because they must, but because they have the desire, ability and opportunity to do so – and there is a HUGE difference between the two.

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