Would You Talk To A Colleague About Your Mental Health?

at the water cooler
(Image credit: Unknown)

If you have concerns about your mental health the most obvious first ports of call are friends and family. But considering the amount of time most people spend at work, does it make sense to stay completely silent about the topic there?

With its Not A Red Card campaign, financial services company Legal & General aims to make discussing your mental health in the workplace as natural as discussing the latest physical fitness fad.

To find out more about the campaign and to get advice on how to look after your mental wellbeing (and others’), we spoke to former professional footballer Clarke Carlisle, a man who has been admirably open about his own mental health issues.

What are the aims of the Not A Red Card campaign?

Legal & General is trying to use sport and humour to get people, but especially men, talking about mental health in their workplace.

Men are more likely to suffer from adverse mental health and the highest suicide rates are in men between the ages of 18 and 44.

We spend more waking hours with work colleagues than anyone else. Who better to discuss what’s going on in your life and in your work environment than those who are going through it with you? The campaign wants to normalise these conversations so that people start to address their mental wellbeing and encourage employers to put a support network in place that is visible to employees.

What kind of conversations can people have about mental health at work?

There’s a huge disparity between how we treat physical and mental wellbeing. If I say physical health you immediately go to diet, or exercise – things like that. If I was to say mental health the connotations are immediately depression or nervous breakdowns – they’re all very negative and focused on the worst-case scenario.

That’s what we need to try and change, especially among guys. We would have no qualms saying, “I’m not eating potatoes or any carbs this month, because I've heard it does this…” We need to be having these conversations about our mental health.

When I say mental health I don't mean huge depression or anxiety, or schizophrenia, I’m talking about the maintenance of everyday wellbeing. I might say, “I had to take five minutes to step outside and go for a walk, because I felt a bit claustrophobic in here”. Or, “I couldn’t really concentrate but just having a five-minute walk really cleared my head”.

That is about mental health – but that’s not how most of us would view it at the moment.

The aim is to discuss small issues early to avoid greater problems down the line?

Definitely – early intervention and prevention.

With the issues you have suffered with, did you feel unable to talk about them at the time?

I didn’t feel like I could discuss them because I didn’t know there was something going on. There were things that, with hindsight, were blatant flags that there was something wrong but I just thought that I was an idiot who repeatedly made bad life choices.

I would binge-drink to blackout, or sit in a casino for hours and hours, or have some gratuitous sex, or play computer games – the new Splinter Cell or Champ Manager – for hours.

Each time I would just think that I was making a bad choice, that I was being stupid, whereas with hindsight I can see that they were happening at periods in my life where I really wanted to change my emotional state. It might have been [because of] severe anxiety, or sadness, or a heavy bout of anger. I didn’t know how to process it, so instead of addressing it, I ran away.

All these external behaviours were me trying to get away from my mental health issues, but I didn’t know it at the time. How can someone address a problem if they don’t know they have a problem? That’s why we need to start having these conversations.

We need to start understanding what the symptoms are of the plethora of mental health issues people can have. I don’t go to a GP when I have emphysema and my lungs are in shutdown, I go when I’ve had cough for two or three weeks so they can have a look at it.

How do you bring these conversations into the workplace?

That will change from person to person and workplace to workplace. When I went to play at Northampton, I touched everyone, every day – a high five or a hug to say good morning.

That enabled me to get a baseline of behaviour for that person over a period of time. So then five or six weeks down the line I knew that if someone who was usually immaculately made up and well dressed came in all unkempt and scruffy for two or three days in a row there might be something going on.

How you start those conversations is by taking an interest in your work colleagues, authentically, and once you do that, that’s when you can start to identify any variations from their normal behaviour. There isn’t one specific symptom to look out for, it’s the change in that person’s behaviour.

So being able to discuss your mental health in the workplace is the result of better relationships with your colleagues?

Yes, and often what we find is within our working groups behaviour needs to be ratified – it’s a permission-based environment. If you’re in an environment where these conversations don't happen, it’s highly unlikely that someone will start it. But once one person does, it gives permission for others to also do it. One way to counteract that is to have senior management endorse this behaviour.

Don’t be afraid. If you’re in a workplace that has three people or more, there are at least two of you who have experienced something! We’re not talking about tragedy and disaster, although that is a percentage of people’s experience.

There are people who get the sweats when they first walk into a meeting room, or struggle for breath when they meet new people, or have a loss of short-term memory for some inexplicable reason. These are all little things that register on the mental wellbeing scale and there are ways to deal with them. Sharing that with someone else will not only help you, because you’ll feel better, but it will also help them.

What should you do if you don’t have the confidence to talk to someone about your mental health? Can journaling or talking to yourself help?

It’s a magnificent coping mechanism and tool, it really is. We’re huge advocates of talking to people about what’s going on. You don’t have to be like me, you don't have to tell everyone, but it’s imperative that you tell someone.

If you can’t verbalise things then writing them on paper or addressing yourself in the mirror is as effective as having that first conversation. It gets the thoughts that are bouncing around in your head out of your mind and once you voice something, the power it has diminishes immediately.

What I would say to someone who does write it down is that if you’re not going to share it with someone, then come back to it a day or two later. Reflect on what your thoughts were at that moment in time – was it a rational thought? And if not, why?

RECOMMENDED: How Keeping A Journal Can Help Your Mental Health

How else can you look after your mental wellbeing?

I have a routine I do every day as the simplest way of keeping tabs on myself. When I wake up in the morning I like to have a pot of black coffee and read my Bible. Then I go to work. Then every night between 10pm and 10.15pm I listen to relaxing classics on Smooth FM with Margherita Taylor, or Myleene Klass at the weekend, and I smoke my tobacco pipe.

If that doesn’t happen, then I will take five to ask why. I didn’t have a pot of coffee this morning because I had to get the six o’clock train to London. That’s quite all right. Whereas if I didn’t have my pot of coffee this morning because I really didn’t want to get out of bed and engage with the world, then that might give me pause for thought.

I have my own base level of behaviour, checking in with myself every morning and evening. If that starts to go awry, it’s usually a good indicator that there’s something to address.

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.