North London Partners in health and care

'Speaking the truth' – mental health in the workplace

Emma Haigh
Service Manager for the Early Help Communities and Practice Service in Camden

Returning to work from maternity leave can be challenging for anyone; returning in the week Ofsted decide to ‘drop in’ on my service was certainly interesting. “Shall I just work from home this week?” I asked my manager trying to lie low. “It’s up to you, but I think the team will be comforted by your presence.” So ok, I was going to have to go in after 6 months off, it was really happening. All this under the back drop of my new diagnosis of post-natal depression (PND). 

I was met with smiles and lots of questions: 

Has it been that long? 'Yes – though for me hours felt like weeks, and weeks like months' 

6 months? How is the baby coping? 'Yes I ONLY took 6 months, I wished I could have taken less. The baby is coping well he loves nursery. I, however, am struggling. Thanks for asking.' 

Back part time, I hope? 'No I am not. I love my job; I love the confidence and sense of purpose it gives me. I am able to work flexibly so I can support my family as I see fit. But do not judge me for this.'  

Full time? Really? 'Yes really, and actually at times coming to work is a break for me!' 

You must be sad to be back? 'No I am not. Actually, I am happier to be back. The routine of work helps me cope with my feelings. It helps to anchor me.'

I made the decision to talk to everyone about my diagnosis. In Early Help family work we promote relational ways of working, ‘working in partnership’ with others rather than ‘doing to’ or ‘doing for.’ So for me it seemed a no brainer to talk about my diagnosis – I felt that being honest with my colleagues would support my return to work. I do not want to continue to promote the taboo of not talking about mental health issues at work. It also seemed fortuitous that my return also coincided with mental health awareness week. 

My PND has not affected my attachment to my children but has brought up deeper issues of the way I was parented and my childhood, which was symptomatic of suppressing my ‘real’ feelings over a period of many years. Not a strategy that is helping me now, I must note.  I was determined to talk about this with all my work colleagues. Don’t get me wrong, it is not a case of talking about it all the time, but rather than answering the question “how are you doing?” with the stock, “yeah I’m fine” or “glad to be back,” I started to tell people one by one my truth. And how coming back to work is helpful to me and helpful as part of the process of healing. The responses I received were heart-warming as well as heart breaking.

  • I had PND too – but I never got help for it and/or didn’t realise until afterwards (4 female colleagues)
  • I think my wife had that but we didn’t know what to do (1 male colleague)
  • I know men don’t get PND but I think I had it (1 male colleague)
  • My husband had PND (1 female colleague)
  • I’m glad you are doing this, I didn’t tell anyone at work when my mum died and it was unhelpful (a male colleague)
  • I’m so sorry, it’s so common right? That sounds horrible, are you ok? (nearly everyone) 

It was such a relief each time, as either people shared a story they had about mental health issues with me or they were able to empathise and offer their support. Speaking the truth doesn’t stop the depression. Speaking the truth can help you to acknowledge how you are feeling. Speaking the truth is hard but can be very powerful in overcoming mental health issues. We know that to build an effective ‘partnership’ in any relationship honesty and trust have to be present. I honestly and truly believe that this applies to your working relationships too. The more we can be honest about our own mental health issues, the more we will be able to support others with theirs.

I wanted to share my experience as PND affects 1 in 10 women and contrary to popular opinion it can also affect partners, current figures suggest that 1 in 25 men are affected. So if you are welcoming a colleague back from maternity/paternity leave, remember that everyone’s experience is different and to be mindful of weighted questions. And if you are coming back from maternity/paternity leave, where you feel it is possible, try to speak the truth about your experience, you will find support in places you didn’t expect. 

Emma Haigh is a Service Manager for the Early Help Communities and Practice Service in Camden.  

By Emma Haigh @bbemma