As some of you will be aware, today, 7 February, is Time to Talk Day. To mark this I am delighted to introduce our latest personal story blog, from Emil Levendoğlu, a Deputy Director in the International Group at HM Treasury.
Emil explains better than I can what this year’s Time to Talk Day is all about and why it is important to create a positive wellbeing culture in which our people feel able to talk openly about mental health.
For the last few years, Time to Change, which describes itself as “a growing social movement working to change the way we all think and act about mental health problems”, has promoted an annual Time to Talk day. The idea is to “bring together the right ingredients to have a conversation about mental health. Whether that’s tea, biscuits and close friends or a room full of people challenging mental health stigma, we want to get you talking.”
The Civil Service has been an enthusiastic participant in this initiative, as part of an important conversation about mental health, wellbeing and inclusion.
Most departments (including my own) have active mental health and wellbeing networks. There are also Civil Service-wide initiatives, such as the appointment of Mental Health First Aiders (MHFA’s) or equivalent and mental health conferences. Perhaps most important has been the way that everyday management practice is evolving to focus on promoting positive wellbeing, and helping staff to manage the stresses that can come with high-pressure, fast-paced work.
For me, that’s what Time to Talk should really be about. When we regularly talk (and listen) to each other about the things that make us feel good or bad, we are helping to de-stigmatise the issue of mental wellbeing, and helping it become a part of everyday communication. Of course, this doesn’t mean we have to go around, forcing each other into over-sharing or uncomfortable conversations. But creating an environment in which people feel able to talk about how they feel is definitely an important step towards a happier and healthier place to work
How far the Civil Service has come was brought home to me a few years ago when I applied for a job after a three-year career break. As part of the recruitment, I had to discuss the results of a raft of psychometric tests with an occupational psychologist, who said to me, “You’re obviously depressed – have you reported this to your employer?”
I was taken aback. Although I have lived with and managed clinical depression for many years, it had never occurred to me to discuss my depression with anyone at the Treasury, primarily because I didn’t think it had affected my ability to do my job. But, alarmingly, when I told the psychologist this, she said she felt “professionally obliged” to disclose my condition in her report to the interview panel. While I was not necessarily uncomfortable with people knowing about my depression, I felt I should have more control over whether, when, and how this information might be given to my employer.
I spoke to the recruiting manager, who was reassuringly supportive: it was entirely up to me how much information about my depression was shared with the interview panel, and indeed with the wider organisation. My mental health was my affair, and the Treasury would support me whether I wanted to disclose details of it or not.
This experience acted as a catalyst for re-evaluating my approach to work and mental health. Ever since my diagnosis, I had relied on a variety of tools and techniques to manage the inevitable low periods that come with depression, including talking therapies, medication, and exercise and other ‘behavioural strategies’ – in plain English, trying to do more of the things that make me feel good.
In fact, my work at the Treasury has been a part of this – the opportunity to do interesting and meaningful work, and feel I was making a reasonably good job of it, has been hugely beneficial in giving me a better baseline sense of mental wellbeing and resilience.
But the above experience made me realise that there was an opportunity – maybe even a need – to be more open about my depression. So I started talking, first to our HR department, and then my boss. I spoke to a trained mental health first-aider about what adjustments I might make to my workplace and my working pattern. Then I spoke to my team about what this might mean for them.
Eventually, I agreed a flexible working pattern – two mornings a week, and I have the option to start the working day at noon. This gives me some time before work, when I have more energy and motivation, to exercise, do some reading, or just catch up with life admin’ at home.
It doesn’t always happen: sometimes, external meetings or business travel have to come first; and sometimes, I choose not to use the flexibility. But having the option makes a big difference, and everyone – from my team members to Tom, our Permanent Secretary – has been hugely supportive.
Encouraging us to talk
The one thing I occasionally think about since I opened up about my mental health, is whether people are wondering if they have to be careful when they are interacting with me. Perhaps they will worry unduly about not stressing me out, or they will be concerned that I might be about to go off the rails. I try not to overreact, but if I think this might genuinely be an issue, I talk to the person concerned.
Sometimes these conversations uncover an issue and are helpful, and sometimes they reveal nothing more than that I’ve overthought it and there’s nothing going on. But I’ve realised that I won’t know which until I talk to them about it… and the more I do, the easier and more natural it becomes. I’ve also noticed that other people seem more comfortable in opening up to me about their issues.
That is why I think Time to Talk Day is such a worthwhile initiative. By encouraging us to talk to each other about wellbeing and the challenges we all face in trying to maintain it, Time to Talk Day is reminding us that this is a conversation we can all benefit from, whether we have a mental health condition or not. I hope that everyone will take the opportunity to do so, today and every day.
I am indebted to Emil for sharing his story and bringing to life what Time To Talk Day means and how talking openly about mental health, alongside adjustments such as flexible working and techniques such as talking therapies and exercise, can make a huge difference to our wellbeing. It is also great to see senior leaders such as Emil and Rupert McNeil show strong leadership in raising awareness of this important subject by openly sharing their personal mental health experiences.
I would encourage all of us to take up Emil’s call for action to talk about our own mental health, not just on Time to Talk Day but on an ongoing basis.