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Ann Diment is Director of Work Safe and Well, transforming burned out professionals into resilient and compassionate leaders. She wants to smash the stigma of talking about mental health, to empower everyone to start those ‘difficult’ conversations so they can become more confident and creative leaders.
Strengthened with a personal understanding of how stigma and bullying at work can cause mental health challenges, Ann utilises key elements of her own recovery from PTSD and depression to teach business leaders how to implement a more creative and human-centred approach to wellbeing at work.
In this interview she talks about her own mental health challenges, including how they have affected her during her career. She goes on to talk more generally about how workplaces can become more inclusive and support those who are struggling.
This interview is part of a series for Women in Health and Safety. As a member of the committee my goal is to amplify the voices of women in the profession. Some of the topics covered affect women more than men. Some are deeply personal. It’s my belief that we bring our whole selves to work and therefore should be able to talk about all sorts of issues that affect us, day-to-day, in a work setting.
Two things have struck me throughout this series. 1) We all have so much in common. 2) People are often very willing to open up, if they’re given a safe opportunity to do so with someone who is willing to listen without judgement. So, my hope is that issues discussed in this series resonate with readers, perhaps making some feel less alone, perhaps even giving some the confidence to share their own stories. I also hope readers will be encouraged to check in on colleagues, talk about the whole selves we bring to work, and most importantly, be there to listen.
What is your experience of PTSD and depression?
“My story is a classic one of having adverse childhood experiences and not realising until adulthood how it had made my mental health suffer. I ended up working in health & safety, and I’ve later realised that’s because I wanted to keep people safe because of my own experiences. In fact, I often felt so passionate about health & safety that I’d get really stressed out if people didn’t do what they were supposed to be doing to protect themselves and others from harm.
“I had various periods of mental ill health during my 20s and was diagnosed with depression. But I wasn’t diagnosed with complex PTSD until I was 38. Navigating that early in my career was quite tough.
“Key symptoms of PTSD are perfectionism and avoiding criticism or conflict. In some ways it helped me do a better job, but that came at my own expense. It can lead to burnout because you work hard to overachieve. And I want to help other people recognise those symptoms.”
At one point you had a particularly difficult period at work – what happened?
“I was working at a university and was training colleagues about mental health and setting up peer support teams. I also got the university to sign up to pledge to support people with mental illness and I did lots of work to help support staff with mental health problems. But I still felt too stigmatised to admit my own mental health problems.
“It came to a point where my mental health did suffer. And I wasn’t treated very well, even though I’d been doing all this work to make the university more aware of and accepting of mental illness. I went through a stressful situation and ended up having nine months off and I came out of it having to reduce my hours in order to reduce my exposure to the stressors instead of the employer dealing with the workplace factors that caused them.
“After the way I was treated, I became determined to smash the stigma of talking about mental health and I’ve been doing that now for the past 10 years.
“I’d also like to highlight a separate, personal issue which affected me at work. I lost a baby in my 20s. I had told everyone at work that I was pregnant and then a couple of weeks later I had a miscarriage which caused me to suffer a breakdown. I had a brilliant boss, but she said to me ‘it’s your own fault, you take too much on’. I thought, wow. I couldn’t believe she said that to me. But that kind of thing actually gets said all the time. And it’s absolutely not right.”
“It feels like it’s in the news all the time. Every time a big mental health news story comes out, it starts a conversation again. But in the workplace, especially in more professional roles, it still feels like it’s a weakness to admit you’ve got mental health challenges. And we need to revisit that.
“Some mental health challenges can actually be a strength, but employers must build into that the compassion and understanding of the individual person. Employers have to recognise that everyone’s different. So, the same workload or working environment can affect people in different ways, depending on their past experiences and their current life situation.
“I’m also seeing a move towards presenteeism and burnout. I’m seeing clients who are brilliant at their jobs, but they’re just exhausted because of changes and uncertainty. Even people who have never had mental health challenges in their life before are suffering this year because of what we’ve been through with the pandemic.”
“I’ve done a lot of research on this. The definition of burnout, according to the WHO, is a workplace syndrome. It’s not about the individual. And that’s where the stigma comes. If somebody is feeling signs of burnout, it’s not them that’s the problem, it’s the work and how it’s organised. It’s to do with workload and communication, not weakness in an individual.
“Have trained mentors or listening teams who can get to people before they reach crisis stage. Sometimes you can feel you’re coming into a period of depression and can talk about it and manage it if the support is there.
“If people do get to the stage where they need time off, when they’re off, don’t pressurise them to come back to work. Many people don’t understand that depression isn’t just psychological, it’s physical as well. It’s your body telling you, ‘you need to slow down and heal’.
“Understand the individual you’re working with, listen to them. Their experience of depression could be completely different to somebody else’s, and their return to work process might need to be completely different too.
“And keep in contact with that person. The longer they’ve been off work, the more difficult it will be for them. When I had a particularly bad episode of depression, even opening an email was triggering, because I was terrified of what that email was going to say.”
“Ask twice. We all say, ‘Are you okay?’ And the standard response is ‘I’m fine’, but actually the person you’re asking might not be fine, but they don’t feel they can go into detail, or they might not want to burden anyone with their issues.
“We often wear masks. When you’re depressed and trying to hide it, you can come across as bubbly on the surface, but underneath not be ok. It’s knowing people well enough to recognise when they’re not themselves. That’s quite hard with remote working. So, if you’re a team leader, checking in with people, and I mean really checking in with them, just to see how they are actually doing is so important.
“Some people, men in particular, tend to open up more if they’re doing an activity side-by-side rather than face-to-face. It’s often easier to talk openly when you’re making a cup of tea, on a cigarette break, walking, or something like that, rather than when you’re sat face-to-face. People don’t tend to be comfortable being questioned face-to-face in a meeting room.”
Any final tips?
“One idea I like is at Christmas do a secret Santa, but instead of buying a gift, donate to your colleague’s favourite charity. People affiliate with charities because of their own personal experiences and just by talking about your chosen charity and why you support it, opens a whole conversation. And you get to know that person better. It also removes all hierarchy because the CEO and cleaner could find they have something very personal in common. It’s peer support on a human level rather than a business level.
“My mission is to start more conversations about mental health. You can’t have enough conversations about this because somebody might be fine one day, but they’re not the next. When you share experiences, it doesn’t feel so isolating. It’s important to build a community in your workplace, encouraging people to speak, rather than ignoring it or isolating people.”
For more information about the Women in Health and Safety network see our hub page here.
To learn more about the Women in Health & Safety Network workstreams and mailing list, click here.
In this episode, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.
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