When I lecture or blog on mental health and the workplace, I regularly say that managing your own mental health is about making the right choices for you. No matter how good your employer, your boss, or your organisation, there are moments when only you can affect your health and happiness and only you can make a change that will improve your life.
In these moments, often when things are not going to plan, you are not happy in your work, or you have ambitions that are not being realised, waiting for others to act rarely works. You must take ownership of your position and be the change you want to see.
I recently reached such a moment.
I’ve had two fascinating years as Head of Communications at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), achieved a lot and been given some fantastic opportunities to make a difference. The chance to work with a range of hugely passionate, committed and talented colleagues on issues related to mental health and wellbeing of students and staff has been one highlight amongst many. But I haven’t been happy for some time.
As I start my masters in counselling and psychotherapy this month, a new chapter in my life opens and with it new possibilities. Upon completion of my course and (hopefully) qualification as a therapist, I plan to combine practising, teaching, speaking, writing and helping organisations with their health and wellbeing strategies and work.
I am deeply passionate about mental health and the workplace and through my work at LJMU have also seen up close the unique issues that students face at university and in the transitions between the various stages of life around their time at university.
It was always my plan to focus on these issues in the coming years but I had intended to stay in my current role until my masters was done. That has now changed.
It has changed partly due to COVID and the extra pressure that it has placed on me in my current role; pressure which is hard to avoid and even harder for me to enjoy. It is also due to some of the challenges, in built within all academic institutions, of trying to bring a sense of the corporate – a organisational view on something like communications – to a group of people and teams whose lives and careers have been often built on individualism, being challenging and ploughing their own furrow. The daily battles to inch forward on some key agendas in the face of overt, or sometimes covert, push-back and resistance is exhausting and has made the job much harder than it needed to be.
Communications people reading this know that much of the unseen, out of hours, work we do is under-appreciated, but that is the territory – it is what we do – and isn’t ground for complaint. But being the subject of regular unfair criticism for just doing your job is.
I have enough experience of the workplace after over twenty years working in dozens of UK and international organisations in the public, private, third and now academic sectors, and the self-awareness, to know that my feelings towards my role are not temporary or easily addressed. I am not someone who can ignore stuff and pretend it is not happening and I am not a 90% or 95% person. The role and the university deserves someone who can throw themselves fully into the job (at times over seven days a weeks) and face into all the demands it places upon them. It also needs someone who has, and is prepared to use, the rhinoceros skin that at times is required. That is not me.
When push comes to shove, I am not happy enough in my work. If I learnt one thing from my breakdown it was to look out for signs of trouble and act, not ignore them and hope things will just get better.
I have decided that when I leave LJMU I will work part time for the foreseeable future and throw myself into my training to become a therapist. In the short term, I am open to doing consultancy/advisory/interim work in mental health and/or communications and will hopefully continue to teach a little at LJMU on issues related to resilience and mental health.
The mission and work of LJMU is inspiring and I am proud to have worked for a university that really cares about people and the community. I am proud too of the values that many LJMU leaders embody. I am extremely grateful to a number of colleagues for their support and positivity over the last two years and for the wonderful opportunities that working at LJMU in my current role has given me.
It has not been all a bed of roses but nor is any job. I have learnt a lot at LJMU and have a renewed understanding of the impact – positive and at times negative – that workplaces (and study places) can have on individuals and their mental health.
I argue passionately that work-life balance and achieving good mental health at work is about choices. It’s about you deciding what is important to you and being true to that. This for me was a moment to take my own advice and make a change. The three weeks I recently had away from work on holiday reassured me I was making the right decision, as is the excitement and motivation I am getting from the reading for my course and the various recent conversations I’ve been having with people about mental health and the workplace, especially in the light of the impact of COVID.
As we enter the home strait in the US presidential election, I am reminded of a famous slogan from a previous campaign that talked of ‘a time for choosing’. I have reached my time for choosing and made my choice. It’s time to turn the page on that next chapter. It’s time make a change. It’s time to move on.