Series: Leadership for women in STEMM - mental toughness for mental health (2/5)

The statistics relating to the mental health and wellbeing of people across the globe have been and continues to be immensely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As many as 78% of adults believe their mental health has worsened this year due to COVID 19, according to Professor Helen Christiansen, a professor of Mental Health at the University of NSW. Many hurting people are reaching out to psychologists and counselors for help. But many are not.

There is still a massive stigma associated with asking for help on mental health related issues.

It seems easier to take a few days off when the symptoms are headache, fever, and a runny nose. Feelings and behaviours that signal mental health issues vary in type and intensity. Many employees are worried about what their boss will think, how their colleagues will judge them. Will this entry on their HR record impact their chances of being selected for the next promotion?

Leadership by its nature requires us to work under higher levels of pressure. This is par for the course when you have the responsibility of leading projects and people.

My message today is to highlight and hopefully help to normalise the reality of just how fragile our mental state can be, and to give you a few quick hacks on how to snap yourself back into focus long enough to get the job done or to a point where it’s OK to give it to a colleague or to come back to it in a day or two. These suggestions are not meant to replace clinical advice or minimise the seriousness of your mental state.

I can remember my mental health took a major nose-dive about 11 years ago. I was in a job that was not winning. I had a boss who was not backing me and yet I was digging my heels in to prove he was wrong, and that I was turning the business around and that I was worthy of his respect. I was also terrified of losing my salary because I thought I was too old to get another job at that level - a form of the curse of the golden handcuffs I guess - and more than anything, I was terrified if my work colleagues found out I was taking time off to take care of my mental health, that they would reject me even more and not trust me for leadership roles in upcoming projects and promotions.

I refused to allow the doctor to write “stress leave” or anxiety or anything that sounded like I was not handling the pressure of my role on my medical certificate. I remember the reason for the 2 weeks leave was very vague. And I rehearsed what I said on the phone to my boss many times so I would not let the cat out of the bag or sound too dysfunctional or share too much or be overly apologetic.

Then whilst I took the 2 week leave and attended an outpatient mental health recovery program each day, I drove stealthily to and fro the centre looking around in fear that I would be found out.

And the terror of returning to work thinking “they all know for sure…. what do I say when they ask where I’ve been?