“There is immense power when a group of people with similar interests gets together to work toward the same goals”
Welcome to day four of Mental Health Awareness Week, today I’m collaborating with St Oswald’s Hospice to bring you this piece about how colleagues and working as a team can help with thoughts and feelings of loneliness…
My first real ‘job’ was with a huge high-street retail store and in all honesty, it was a really bad first impression of working life (hence why I’m not naming them!). I originally started as Christmas temporary staff but was kept on when the season ended and in deciding to renew my contract, they decided to train me to do a specific role in the store. It was a role where – on a good day – it would take three staff to maintain it… But most days weren’t ‘good’ and I was often left to man the position alone. So that it was just me doing the job of three.
The other challenge I experienced in the role, was that all the staff on the tills had a bell where you could ring a specific number of times and it would signal something different to the rest of the staff. The third option for the number of rings would signal the security guards and the ability to do this was something I didn’t have because there was no bell at the place, I worked in. This obviously wouldn’t have bothered me if I didn’t think I needed it anyway; but I did. I mean, the number of complaining and abusive customers I got… Well, I would have felt a whole lot more reassured and comfortable if I’d been able to call for help!
With those things in mind, I suppose it was no real surprise that my mental health began to really deteriorate whilst working there, and I started experiencing auditory hallucinations literally as I was finishing one of my shifts. I mean, I know that my antipsychotic medication means there is some kind of imbalance, but I do think that stress can worsen my symptoms. And there’s no denying the fact that I was definitely stressed in that job!
After quitting my job, I spent the following thirteen years out of paid employment. Whilst I did so purely because my mental health was so poorly that I couldn’t commit to shifts and keep myself safe enough to not need time off; I still wanted to be working. My Mum has always worked so I think I was raised with a really good role model (in more ways than this) to have a good work ethic. So, I’ve always believed that if there was hope for recovery, then as soon as I was well enough, I’d want to be working. And that’s why whenever I did have a stable period with my mental health, I took on voluntary jobs (mostly working in charity shops) but, of course, nothing lasted – neither the jobs nor my stability.
So, when I was in the specialist psychiatric hospital for two and a half years, a few opportunities came up to do some sort of employment or voluntary work and the Activity Coordinators said they’d noticed that when it came close to me starting one of these jobs, I would have an excuse not to go ahead. So, we did some work around that, and I learnt that my reason for this was that I was so terrified of commitment at that point in my mental health journey.
I think the largest motivation for this fear was that I was very passionate about people making commitments and them actually following it through. I mean, it was very common in mental health services for a professional to say one thing and then something completely different would happen. It meant a lot of disappointment, a lot of feelings of betrayal and dishonesty, a lot of frustration, and a huge loss of respect. And I think that experiencing all of that, time and time again; really influenced my thoughts and feelings around commitment and the importance of keeping your word. So, it’s something that I take very seriously.
I learnt a lot more about it when I created, I’m NOT Disordered though. In the beginning, since I intended my content for friends and family, I didn’t feel that there was any sort of responsibility or commitment… To be fair, I think a lot of people thought my blog wouldn’t last as long – or at least that it would be closed down when I left the specialist psychiatric hospital. So, when the reader count started to take off and more and more people from all over the world were beginning to read my posts, I found myself a little bit… thrown, maybe? I mean, I hadn’t imagined that ever happening, so I wasn’t prepared for it, and I felt like I hadn’t committed for something like this to happen and so I wondered if that meant I had the right to decide whether or not to continue.
Of course, I decided to carry on and my blog gradually became so huge that it has meant it really feels like a career, and that’s taught me so much more about the importance of commitment where a job or career is concerned. There have been a few instances where I’ve had to go back on commitments where my blog is concerned, and whilst I’ve always had (at least in my opinion) a really good reason to do so, I’ve always felt pretty terrible when it’s happened. Which is probably mostly because I know how it feels to be on the other end of the let-down and disappointment.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when I found myself more capable to make commitments around collaborating with others on content for my blog and attending events; I was also stable enough to be discharged from the specialist psychiatric hospital. Whilst I was deemed as being in ‘recovery’ I have definitely learnt that ‘recovery’ isn’t linear. It’s not like once you’re in it then that’s it; you’re better! Which meant that I was still unable to hold down a paid position, and so I focused a lot on bettering my blog and I put all of my energy and effort into securing collaborations, attending conferences, and speaking at events. Regardless of the fact that my mental health and safety waivered, I still felt a sense of productivity and had a real thirst for achievement and accomplishment. I couldn’t just sit on my butt at home watching TV.
So, in 2019, I spotted a voluntary position as a Digital Volunteer for St Oswald’s Hospice and after an informal interview with two of their Communications team, I started working with them. It suited me really well because whilst the Hospice find structured shifts helpful, there was no real strict structure of my voluntary and it meant I felt able to speak up if my mental health really needed me to take time for myself and to do something different. So that was good for the commitment side of things; and in all honesty, with my mental health deteriorating so immediately in line with my job at the high street store all those years ago, I really only focused on the negatives that I felt were stopping me from battling my mental health to maintain employment (the instability and commitment!). When, in fact, I hadn’t put much thought into the challenges I’d actually faced whilst in that position, particularly in the lack of support from colleagues.
You know what they say about not knowing what you had until it’s gone? Well, this was the opposite. I didn’t know what I hadn’t had, until I had it! I didn’t know I had been deprived of experiencing the joys of teamwork and the notion of being able to lean on colleagues for advice, support, opinions etc, until I worked with the incredible St Oswald’s Hospice Communications team. I mean, even from before having my interview – when they asked whether it would be ok for them to read my blog before they met me – I felt respected and supported.
The second evidence of the team having these qualities was in the fact that I felt instantly appreciated in my voluntary role. Now, my other voluntary roles over the years were also for charities and I can’t remember experiencing any sort of regard or respect quite like what I was immediately shown from the Communications staff. I think it’s quite common in the working world to see volunteers as ‘beneath’ paid members of staff, and even just from my first training sessions, I saw that the Hospice greatly recognise that it wouldn’t be all that it is if it weren’t for their volunteers. And I have so much admiration for the organisation in doing this.
During those early volunteer days, I also felt a sense of belonging with the team, the other staff were so open and helpful that it felt as though I could so easily build some sort of bond with each of them. That notion of finding your place in the world, is something I have struggled with so much in my mental health journey, and I think that being unable to work played a bigger part in it than I realised at the time. I had grown to believe that I had no real purpose – or at least that it wasn’t a positive one! But then I’m NOT Disordered started to grow and develop and I found myself feeling as though there was a reason why my suicide attempts had been ‘unsuccessful.’ I had a reason to stay alive and to fight for my safety and wellbeing. So, joining St Oswald’s Hospice was kind of like an addition to that feeling, in that by working with the Communications team, I felt as though it really illustrated that my blogging has happened for a reason. Without everything I’ve learnt about the digital world through my blog, I wouldn’t have known that I wanted to work in Communications, and I wouldn’t have had the foundational knowledge and understanding for them to build upon.
After two years with the team and completing a whole bunch of tasks that varied from researching all of the contact details for the Hospice’s local GP surgeries to putting together a PowerPoint that would feature on all the TV screens dotted around the Hospice, the Communications team asked if I would be interested in a paid position with the Volunteer Department that they thought I might enjoy. The role was as Kickstart Project Coordinator and involved managing the entire process of the government funded scheme that allowed young people (16 – 25) the opportunity to work at the Hospice in a variety of different roles. Since I was already a volunteer, the recruitment process was slightly easier. I wrote my letter of application, was offered an interview and later, the job!
With Kickstart being a fairly new scheme in the working world and the position being completely new to St Oswald’s Hospice, there was a lot of uncertainty in defining my duties and responsibilities. It was a huge learning curve and whilst I obviously appreciated the opportunity, it really taught me that my heart lay in Communications. However, something that – I felt – was one of the most important lessons I learnt from the role, was that even in a completely different department within the charity, the staff were supportive, helpful, and passionate. It was really lovely to see the continuity in attitude and behaviour because that consistency was definitely something that I’d found to be missing in mental health services, which meant I appreciated people and organisations who had this quality so much more.
When my contract with the Kickstart position ended, I didn’t even consider the possibility of looking for another paid role elsewhere, I knew the right thing was to go back to Communications as a volunteer. Even though it was obviously a big financial loss; since starting to blog, I’ve learnt that I’d so much rather spend my time doing something I enjoy – even if there aren’t many material ‘gains’ from doing so – than doing something I’m not passionate about and that I don’t enjoy but gain freebies or money etc from it. And I think a lot of that positivity and desire to enjoy what I’m doing comes from no longer being suicidal and having a real gratitude and appreciation for my time and what I do with it.
Not long after the Kickstart job, the Communications team managed to secure funding and offered me a temporary, paid contract as Communications and Marketing Assistant. The largest benefit of this, for me, was being able to have more responsibility and undertake different tasks. Going through a mental illness, and especially if it’s as overwhelming and dangerous as mine was, it seems incredibly easy and often that you’ll find yourself experiencing some sort of a loss in your responsibilities – no matter what the context!
Feeling as though people are either taking away your power and influence and that their expectations of you are reducing because of your mental health, can – on the one hand – be reassuring and supportive… But on the other hand, they can be demeaning and patronising. I mean, from one perspective it can seem that people are looking out for you and recognising and understanding any limitations you may have because of your mental health. Then, in doing so, they’re responding to this and taking the time to carefully consider how they can help you with those difficulties. On the other side of this though, reducing what you’re being trusted with can feel as though people are beginning to underestimate your ability and, as a result, are having much lower expectations of you. This notion can seem really insulting when you feel as though it’s unnecessary and not at all deserved.
So, being trusted with more responsibilities from the Communications team was really important to me and I felt honoured that they knew they could rely on me to complete and succeed at doing some really big, essential tasks. I felt that it was the perfect evidence that I was in recovery and that I had come so far on my mental health journey. However, I also recognise that no matter what ‘place’ I’m in with my mental health, being trusted and relied upon can be completely dependent on the organisation and your colleagues. And so, I fully appreciate St Oswald’s Communications team for seeing my strengths and abilities, and for providing me with ample opportunities to prove myself worthy of their trust.
THREE WAYS TO SUPPORT LONELY COLLEAGUES
Whether you have a new colleague or have known them for years, it’s so important to look out for each other and to treat your colleagues the way you would like them to treat, support, and help you. And with loneliness being a huge contributor to mental illness, it’s imperative that you ensure everyone is feeling equal and reassured that there’s always someone there for them. If you’ve not found yourself having to comfort someone feeling lonely, here are five tips to help…
JUST ASK IF THEY’RE OK
The simple act of asking how a colleague is doing can be a real motivation for them to feel comfortable and able to open up and just start talking; because who knows where the conversation might go and how much it might help.
A THOUGHTFUL GIFT
Colleague Keyring: £6.99
Wine Tumbler: £16.99
Mouse Mat: £14.99
Inspirational Cushion: £11.95
Hanging Heart: £6.95
Black Mug: £13.98
The Little Jar of Calm: £12.99
Stress Balls: £13.99
ENCOURAGE SEEKING PROFESSIONAL HELP WHERE NECESSARY
It’s important that you’re mindful of your own limitations and just how capable you are of helping someone who, you might feel, would benefit more from professional help and support. So, encouraging a colleague to see their GP or call a helpline etc can sometimes be the greatest way you can help.