Some of our own posts and our guest posts are a little lighter hearted in nature, dealing with ridiculous dress codes, badly judged e-mails or ways you can identify when you’ve been in local government too long. We love sharing them too, so if you’ve got something you want to say then e-mail it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
However, we are not shy of addressing some more serious issues affecting the lives of local government officers, and today’s guest post does just that. We hope you read it and understand a little more about the issues it discusses by the end than you might have at the beginning.
Cost. That has become a bit of a dirty word in the office these days: how much money something costs, how much time it costs, how much energy it costs to get things done.
These costs are generally speaking organisational, and are usually relatively straightforward to quantify. However, a major area of cost which never finds its way onto any balance sheets is the cost to people, and even when certain costs are accounted for there is one glaring omission – the cost to ones mental health.
Mental health is something so often misunderstood, even by those who mean well. Some feel they are understanding people, who will do all they can to support someone through their mental health battles with the idea that it can be beaten and overcome, put in the past and moved on from.
Others take the opposite tack, trying to treat them as they would anyone else and not making a big issue out of it in the hope that distraction with other ‘more important and urgent’ issues will put mental health firmly in its place at the bottom of any priority list.
For those of us in local government these are incredibly stressful and difficult times. Even the most stoic and mentally healthy person can find themselves wobbling at the moment; tempers fraying, long silences growing, work and relationships suffering as the constant and increasing pressures and responsibilities are placed upon them.
For those of us who were fighting mental health problems even during the ‘good old days’ of local government, things can be a fair bit harder.
Having gone through my own dark times, the past few months have been rough to say the least. I’ve hidden my own mental health issues from all, even avoiding naming them to my partner for fear that they would treat me differently. I know that they know, it’s been a huge elephant in the room so many times, but giving it a name might give it power so we’ve skirted around it as only couples can do. I knew that I shouldn’t be depressed and couldn’t work out why I was – it was as much a part of me as my eyesight or appreciation for Glee (two unrelated facts, I assure you).
I spent years building up walls and barriers around my issues, making sure that they wouldn’t negatively affect my work or relationships, and had been doing well. Out of sight was out of mind, and it became my own version of playing The Game in which I was the only player and the referee. The longer I ignored, suppressed or forgot about things, the longer I stayed positive and happy.
That changed when I went through a restructure. It wasn’t so much the simple interview process itself, but was more around the uncertainty surrounding the entire process. The months leading up to the announcement that we would restructure as a service; the weeks leading up to the draft structure being announced; the weeks leading up to the final consultation being completed; the build up to the interview itself; the months since, feeling a constant need to prove myself; none of this has been positive, and has reminded me of the times I wanted to forget. Even were I able to keep things out of my own mind, a simple look around at the faces of my colleagues made me empathise with them, which in turn led to me being sucked down into a negative state of mind myself.
That thin veneer of confidence I’d rebuilt since I first encountered mental health issues suddenly were not enough. The constant questioning of whether I would be okay, the conversations about what would happen if I wasn’t successful, the gentle support from friends and my partner simply served to make me think about things I’d hidden for so long and not really dealt with. I retreated from those around me, feeling that I needed time and space to think, plan and consider things but then not taking any of that time to do so, instead distracting myself so as not to have to acknowledge and address things.
I was losing the battle.
The only thing that saved me was a shifting battlefront. Post restructure other teams and colleagues have themselves gone through and are going through problems, with some good friends and very capable officers not securing positions. My attention has shifted from internal questioning to external support. I know I’m just putting off having to deal with things, but for now it’s working and perhaps subconsciously those walls are being somewhat rebuilt.
Like physical health, mental health is not something that always comes naturally. Some are gifted with it, and can withstand anything just like some are gifted physically. Most have a few low points but muddle through regardless.
For some though, mental health is something that needs to be worked at every day. Like going to a gym or eating healthily to get physically fit, we need to do things to keep us mentally fit; reading, interacting with friends, spending time with family, doing sports or watching a movie.
As this blog mentioned recently, sometimes we don’t take that time for ourselves because we are worried about not being in the office, for fear that they might realise they don’t need us. Please, whatever you do, take that time for yourselves and for those you care about. Find out what makes you happy – there is always something – and invest some time in doing it. That’s the only way you will keep on top of things.
But don’t forget; just because you’re winning doesn’t mean it’s not still a battle.
Local government is turning into a constantly shifting beast. It is not the stable, secure set of jobs, positions and roles that most people perceive it to be, and is going through it’s own identity crisis. On a macro level it is going through the very same battles that have been faced on a micro level – the questioning of competency, the defensiveness, the insecurity and the paranoia. We all need to play our own role in these wider battles; perhaps by addressing them at an organisational level where things are larger and more easy to see we might then be able to identify them at an individual level as well.
Mental health is one of the last great taboos of society, with real costs to people at every level of any organisation. There is little that can be done to prevent people from having to fight battles; just try to make sure that you are there for your colleagues and friends as they fight for themselves.
Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: email@example.com