First hand advice from an expert by experience
At Maudsley Learning we believe in peer to peer learning. We believe that sharing stories and learning from experience can be very impactful. As such, we thought it would be very powerful for us to tell you the story of someone who has experienced mental illness. Lisa Rodrigues has kindly shared her experience with the intention of helping people understand how powerful a good support system can be, and we hope that line managers can take away positive points about how to best support their employees in their mental health and wellbeing.
Lisa Rodrigues, CBE, is a writer and mental health campaigner. She retired in 2014 after 41 years in the NHS. She was a nurse and health visitor, then an NHS manager, including 13 years as chief executive of a mental health trust. She blogs at www.lisasaysthis.com
Lisa now uses her understanding of stigma, including self-stigma, to raise awareness and reduce the negativity that can still be associated with mental illness. She has answered a couple of questions that Maudsley Learning had for her about her experience.
Q1: At what point did you feel that mental illness was affecting your work?
I have experienced depression off and on since aged 15, but kept quiet about it at work until I was 58, ironically only a month before my latest episode… Regarding my latest episode, I really thought I was OK until the day I collapsed. But with hindsight, there were warning signs in the preceding months which I ignored. Colleagues had noticed I was showing signs of stress, but because I was the Chief Executive, I think they found it hard to say anything to me. Or if they did, I wasn’t listening.
Q2: When did you decide to seek help, and how did you communicate that at work?
I didn’t seek help myself, it was kind of thrust upon me because I deteriorated very quickly. I had to make a decision about being open regarding why I was off. I’m really glad I was encouraged to do this. It was very hard initially, but in the end made things a lot easier, particularly going back to work.
Q3: How did your line managers and colleagues react to the news – can you share any behaviours that you found particularly useful at the time?
I was the boss, and because I had always seemed a very strong person, people were shocked. I had excellent support from several members of my executive team and my Chairman. I found it really good that they contacted me at least once a week, by email, and that three of them offered to visit me at home. I cried over all of them, but they were really kind and it made going back a lot easier because I had seen them.
Q4: What was going through your mind when you were returning to work?
I was terrified. I didn’t see how I could go back after being (in my mind at the time) a failure and collapsing as I had. When I went back, I was still feeling that it was all my fault and that it should have been something I managed better. It wasn’t until some months later that I finally accepted in my own mind that I had actually been ill.
Q5: What helped you the most in making a full recovery?
Getting good care quickly was very important. Running a mental health trust, I really wanted one of my own doctors to look after me. But that would have been wrong. So they found me someone else who, along with an extraordinarily lovely GP I had never met before and just happened to be on duty the day I shuffled into her surgery, helped me save my own life. I am indebted to these people. Both helped me see that I needed medication, and then to start going out of the house again, and eventually to go back to work. I was off for two months, but it felt like a lifetime.
Going back to work was harder than I can possibly describe. But it was also what got me better. My job was a very part of who I was, and it was the thought of my impending retirement that was probably one of the triggers for this acute depressive episode. I didn’t want to be one of those people who has a breakdown and just disappears, although all I wanted to do was hide away.
I had a very good occupational health assessment. Again, because of my job, it would have been unfair to the staff concerned to have to assess me, so the trust paid for this to be done by a specialist. It really helped in planning my return, and was a big hurdle.
For the first month back, we agreed I would be supernumery, work reduced hours and mainly just show up at things. And the second month back, I gradually started taking up the reins, but working in a less frenetic way than before. I had wonderful support from the person who ran my office and other admin colleagues. They were so kind to me, I cannot thank them enough. I was continuing to have therapy weekly, which I paid for myself, and so I either worked from home on those days, or just went in for the afternoon.
Q6: What would be your top 3 tips to line managers?
- Be aware of warning signs in yourself and colleagues, such as brittleness, snappiness, over-reaction to things, loss of perspective, tearfullness, hopelessness. But don’t try and be a doctor or therapist. Suggest the person seeks help, and make sure they get it.
- Don’t write this person off; mental illness is just a tiny part of who they are, not their defining characteristic. Listen, and don’t make assumptions.
- Stay in touch with them. If they go off radar, make even more effort to stay in touch. Be prepared to visit them. Don’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing. Be kind. Reassure them that they are needed, but that you are prepared to wait till they are better. Encourage them back to work as soon as possible, even if it just to come in and have a coffee with you. Coming back to work is a big hurdle. Be prepared to make adjustments when they come back. These will help everyone, not just the person who has been poorly.
Like Lisa’s story, there are hundreds, and we hope that this article helps you gain perspective through someone else’s shoes and receive first hand tips to help you in supporting your employee’s wellbeing in the best way you can.