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Mental Health: a bit of perspective

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In the October 2018 edition of the associate lecturer newsletter, Snowball, I wrote the following paragraph: “When I got to the beginning of October, I sat down after a hard day of emailing and suddenly thought: “Is this what burnout feels like?” I had caught myself looking at my Outlook inbox and couldn’t find the mental energy to open up and process another email.”

In 2015, I wrote the following in a blog post that reflected on the closure of the university’s regional centres: “I’m a pretty young guy. I can deal with stuff. I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for stress, but I’m beginning to suffer from change fatigue. I’m beginning to get tired and have started to think ‘what have I got to do now?’ and ‘when will thing settle down to a steady state?’  The issue of change fatigue was something that was mentioned by another colleague.  I’m feeling the strain, and I’m getting tired.”

I had another moment like this a couple of weeks ago, but it had a slightly different character. Rather than feeling unable to open up yet another email, I realised that I was becoming increasingly grumpy. There was another aspect to my grumpiness: I also felt a little ‘flat’ emotionally. 

I then realised that I had spent three very busy and very full days at the OU campus (I’m a home worker, so it’s always a bit of an ordeal to get to the head office), plus I had worked a whole Saturday on a quite demanding TM356 Interaction Design teaching event, that also took place on campus. In between all those days, I was working at home, on my own; just me and my laptop. I suddenly realised that my “very busy week” might have had influenced my grumpiness.

I then realised that I was in need of a holiday.

Staff tutor session

On 26 February, I went to the usual STEM staff tutor meeting. The first part of the meeting was all about general university updates: new colleagues, updates about the new tutor contract, clarification about the university strategic objectives, and something about the new IT systems replacement. The second bit was different; it was all about mental health.

The second part of the meeting was facilitated by Stephen Haynes who is from a charity called Mates in Mind which has its origins in the construction industry. 

Stephen presented what was described as a ‘whistlestop well-being tour’. He began by asking us some questions: “how are you doing?”, “why don’t we talk about mental health?” and “what do we mean by mental health?” 

A simple point was made that: we all have mental health, and it’s important to think of things in terms of ‘mental fitness’. A point I noted down was: one can have a diagnosed mental health condition but can have good mental health (which was a theme that came out of another session I attended in London, which I'll mention later on).

I made some notes about something called a ‘stress response curve’, which illustrated the difference between stretch (which is a good thing), and strain (which is a bad thing). If there’s a lot of strain over a period of time, then there’s a risk of burning out.

Stephen gave us some facts: suicide in the education profession is higher than the national average, 300k jobs are lost every year due to mental health issues and 44% of all work related illnesses are due to mental health issues (unfortunately I don’t have the reference for this, but it might well have been in Stephen’s presentation). Also, 1 in 5 of us are anxious most of the time.

I noted down 5 ways (or actions) that can contribute to positive well-being. These were: connect with people, be active, give, keep learning, and take notice (ironically, I didn’t note down what ‘take notice’ means, but I assume it means to take the time to be aware of ones surroundings).

I was also interested to hear that one of the biggest drivers of employee well-being is having a good line manager. This point made me stop for a moment: I’m a line manager.

As well as being a line manager, I’m also a home worker. I made a note of a set of potentially useful tips: consider your posture and work environment (my posture needs to be better), don’t multi-task (I try not to, but there are always distractions; I need to put my mobile phone in the other room when I really need to get on with some ‘thinking work’), use a web cam when you participate in remote calls (this way I’m forced to not work in my pyjamas and be scruffy), take the time to check in with others (I miss my colleague Sue, who has recently retired), look out for each other, look out for yourself, and take the time to listen. 

Like many institutions, the university has something called an employee assistance programme or scheme; telephone support that any employee can access at any time. I have to confess that I’ve never used it. Apparently, counsellors that support these programmes can readily say: “if only I had spoken to him or her sooner”. I never used that service since “I never thought I was that bad”, but looking back, I certainly feel that there was a point in my life where I could have benefited.

One of the biggest take away from that whole session was that phrase: “if only I had spoken to him or her sooner”.  The assistance service is there to be used, and there is no reason that I shouldn’t use it if I feel stressed or upset, or down, or anxious, or emotionally “flat”. Not even a misplaced sense of ‘masculine pride’ or sense of ‘coping’ should prevent me from chatting to someone. This, I felt, was a very helpful take away point.

Resources

After the session, I remembered that I had seen a couple of resources on the OpenLearn website. One is called Work and mental health, and another has the title: Exercise and mental health

A few years back, a Mental health awareness day (OU blog) event was held in the London regional centre. During this event, the theme of mental well-being was discussed. I also remember being shown a video called I had a black dog, his name was depression (YouTube, World Health Organisation), which also featured in our Staff Tutor session. I remember the biggest take away point from that day was the importance of choosing to do things, or to participate in events that are positive for mental well-being.

This takes me onto the final resource, a blog summary about a Home working workshop, that was organised by HR (OU blog). One of the main messages I took away from this event was pretty stark (I’m not going to tell you what that message was, but I’ll mention that it is in the section that is about setting and management of boundaries). 

The second take away message was simple, pragmatic and helpful. It was: ‘make sure that you plan your own down time’. Thinking back to my opening paragraphs, I think this is something that I need to get better at doing.

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Great post Chris. We all need to look after our mental health as well as our physical health, and our employers should support the wellbeing of their staff.