Talking about mental health is something society encourages us to avoid. When my father died of pancreatic cancer when I was 12, it triggered severe depression. I remember when he died; I went upstairs, lay next to him and said goodbye. My superhero had gone. Much later in life, my mother told me that when I came back downstairs, and every day after that, she knew part of me had changed.
A part of me that I wouldn’t deal with for a very long time.
I remember at the beginning of my career, I would take several sick days rather than admit to being depressed. I didn’t have 1:1s, nobody was actively looking out for me and nobody ever came over and said, ‘Hey, I know you’ve been off work a lot, are you okay?’.
I would come into work and I would be called ‘Failhouse’. There was even a ‘circle of fail’ where 0 represented the least amount of fail and I, ‘Failhouse’, represented the most. Twitter accounts were created to mock. While lots of effort went into poking at what they thought was the issue (a lazy, flaky engineer), no effort went into finding out what was really going on. Often, I would find myself heading on autopilot into a depressive episode. It would gradually build up and by the time I realised, it was too late and it would destroy me for months at a time.
Several years later, I decided to try to devise a way of knowing when I was about to fall. Something that would help short circuit the autopilot. I wondered if I could catch myself before it became too late and before I found myself in the dreaded hole of deep, dark depression. By observing things changing around me, I created a simple method of keeping note of broken habits; looking at the things I had stopped doing when my mental health began to suffer. Crucially, I wanted to identify the things that were naturally part of my day-to-day routine, because to break those would be an early, and indeed useful, indicator of a problem.
The first thing I noticed was that I would start to read less until the point where I wouldn’t read a book for months. As someone who usually reads every day during my commute, it was abnormal to go large stretches of time without picking up a book.
I devised a stupidly simple plan — if I noticed a lack of reading for a lengthy period and that something was ‘off’, I took four easy steps to make it right and prevent myself from falling further:
- STOP: Pause and take a moment to think. Does something not feel right? Does it seem like you’re becoming disinterested in things?
- OBSERVE: Understand that you have fallen out of routine and look for causes. Keep an eye on your behaviour and step outside of yourself and your feelings to try to build awareness about what is going on.
- CORRECT: Being self-aware of what is happening and why, can allow you to adjust and correct. Sometimes, I would be able to correct straight away; other times it would require some adjustments over the course of a week.
- NOTIFY: Tell others. It may sound simple but mention to your partner, family and/or friends that you are having a tough time. Share the load a bit and get a different viewpoint. Other sufferers have said not to wait before speaking out because it can snowball too quickly. Often, they were aware of things going downhill before hitting ‘rock bottom’, but they didn’t feel able to tell anyone without being judged.
Everyone has daily habits that are hard to break — going to the gym, a morning walk, making a checklist before bed despite being exhausted etc. These are the simple things to monitor so that you too, can hopefully catch yourself early enough to do a course correction.
Even if you don’t suffer, as a leader you need to be aware of those that do.
Pay attention to your direct reports and put tools in place so that you’re able to see when someone isn’t quite themselves/that something might be wrong. I’d recommend:
- 1:1s: Make sure you have them; it’s essential. Don’t allow long periods of time go between conversations.
- Create a safe space: Don’t let the 1:1s just be about status updates — be willing to have the awkward conversations, talk about more than just work and be open and honest with your direct report, so they feel comfortable telling you when they’re struggling.
- Foster a team environment where it’s okay to say you’re tired, down or burnt out: Having context is great. If I’ve had a hard night, I will tell the teams who report to me so they understand why I may be a bit grumpier that day. It’s because I’ve had an hour or two sleep, not because I’m mean!
- Build a profile in your head of what is ‘normal’ for your direct reports: Everyone has a slight variance in daily behaviour, but being able to pick up on off-key behaviour is useful. Sometimes just a, ‘Hey, is everything okay?’ is enough for someone to become self-aware and allows them to begin to modify their path whether that is self-correction or to reach out for help.
Building up that level of communication does take a while, but it’s worthwhile. Fostering the right kind of team environment that is judgement-free means you’ll be able to provide a healthy working space for everyone; even those who struggle a little more than others.