Managing Director, Etc.
I’d never really paused to consider my mental health until well into my adult life. I found myself sitting in my car outside my office, paralysed and more exhausted than I’ve ever felt before. Between the sudden brain fog and waves of anxiety I felt like my brain was in overdrive. Even thinking through simple interactions I was used to having day-in-day-out became overwhelming.
This is the most difficult blog I’ve ever had to write. Maybe because it’s so personal, maybe because I know that so many people have been through the same thing and haven’t felt that they couldn’t share their experience or maybe a bit of both. But it’s also the most important – because if we as leaders, colleagues and friends don’t share our challenges in the same way that we share our successes, then we will never send the message to other people that their struggles are valid and that we’re there for them.
It took me a few months to process that what was happening to me was actually connected to mental health and anxiety – and it was an experience which, at first, I didn’t know how to make sense of. I kept thinking, “Why can’t I focus on my kids when I’m at home? Why am I so anxious at work? It’s not like this is the hardest or most stressful job I’ve ever done – so what’s the problem?”. The reality of it was that I was struggling with a number of different issues at the time, but my mind had combined them all together to create a ‘big bad wolf’ that was impossible to make sense of. When I tried to confront what was going on beneath it all I wasn’t able to see any of the problems individually, just the wolf blocking my path. It was like I was trying to tune a radio in my head, but I couldn’t bring it into focus so all I was met with was static and white noise. I knew I needed to change something, but I couldn’t understand how or what to do.
For me, the most crucial step was the first – admitting that something wasn’t quite right and telling my boss. Getting the problem out in the air lifted a huge burden – but the real change came when my environment changed. I got a new line manager, my role changed, and gradually, the fog started to lift. I moved to a role I loved and had my first experience of building digital products with a boss who has since become a brilliant friend. That move really was a sliding doors moment for me – it opened up new opportunities and ultimately led me to the world of startups within corporates, the place I now proudly call home.
I got gradually more comfortable speaking to friends and family about what I was going through, and suddenly I felt like I could start making sense of what was going on and what obstacles I needed to work through. It’s a tool I turn back to whenever I feel those emotions rising up again, along with making time to meditate and exercise loads – I know it’s a stereotype but movement really helps keep me grounded.
I was lucky enough to have a brilliant network of support at that time, but I also experienced some interesting responses as I started to improve. I remember one family member asking me on one of my better days – “do you feel better now Tom, are you over it?” – and it reminded me just how little so many of us (myself included) really understand achieving and maintaining positive mental health.
When people talk to me about mental health now, the best way I’ve learnt to describe it is as an injury. Injuries heal and get better over time, but they still hurt while they are recovering, and even when the pain is gone, we still know that they were (or sometimes still are) there. If you injure your back or leg and after it’s fixed you still take care of it, maybe stretching more, doing yoga or pilates… Mental health “injuries” are the same, they may have healed but you always have to take a bit of extra care. I think that’s helped me come a long way in the years since, because it made me realise that I’m not invincible, and, importantly, that it’s completely fine not to be.
I would never say that I have the answers – if I’m honest in my journey it was a combination of chance, luck and an incredibly supportive network around me. But that period in my life has helped me show more empathy and become more comfortable checking in with friends and colleagues facing something challenging. Whilst I try not to give too much advice (I’m not a medical professional after all), going through a mentally difficult time myself has taught me so much about how to offer a judgement free ear and make people aware that I have an open door should they ever need it. This is so important in the workplace – we often spend so much time caught up in the work that we forget the people behind the deliverables.
I’ve also started to learn more about how my mental health connected me to the emotions I felt, and still feel – many of which have helped me become better at what I do. This has helped me think more about how I can build a workplace that celebrates and supports neurodivergence. I was always told in school that I was the class clown, that I was “disruptive” – so I’m claiming back that word by building a team that puts a disruptive approach at its very heart.
This is the most difficult blog I’ve ever had to write. But if I can remind just one person that they’re not alone, it’s the most worthwhile blog I’ve ever written.
And to the big bad wolf… although I may sometimes see your shadow, I’ll never walk down that path to your house again.
If you’re reading this and anything I’ve said has resonated with you, I’ve compiled some resources related to issues mentioned in this article below. If you have any that you would like to share that have helped you or somebody you know, please feel free to share in the comments:
Anxiety UK (runs a helpline staffed by volunteers with personal experience of anxiety): https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/
How to manage and reduce stress (Mental Health Foundation):
Tips on being mentally healthy at work (Mind Charity): https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/how-to-be-mentally-healthy-at-work/work-and-mental-health/