“It all started last summer,” says Martin Belcher. “I started feeling…” he trails off.
“Actually, I have a history of mental health issues.”
Martin presents the news with reticent defiance. He knows that mental health is everyone’s problem. But, clearly, he’s had first-hand experience of the unfair bias that often meets his brave admission.
After a moment, he continues his story.
Martin Belcher has a long history with Simplyhealth. Joining the company during its HSA days, he worked in sales for over nine years.
Then everything changed. Martin had his first significant experience with poor mental health. In 2000, he had what he describes as a major breakdown. And, while he got support from the NHS in the form of counselling, it was almost a full year before he was ready to return to the world of work.
Empowered by the counselling he’d received and a deeper understanding of how to manage his diagnosis, Martin says things have been relatively even-keeled for the past 14 years.
But last summer, Martin started feeling a little down. He recognised the symptoms and tried to sort it out himself, using the coping techniques he’d learned during his treatment with the NHS more than a decade before.
“It got worse and worse.”
He started having panic attacks. He had to escape his office space, and sat outside, crying his eyes out. His team leader came and found him, soothed his anxiety, and managed to get him back to his post.
But it happened again a short while later.
This time, Martin’s team leader suggested calling the employee assistance programme (EAP). This service exists to support staff with any stresses they face, whether they need advice, support, or counselling. Many UK companies now offer a service like this to their teams as part of their benefits package.
When asked about his first encounter with the EAP, Martin says he was really nervous. “I’d never used a service like this before, you see. Some people I knew had used bits of it, but not the counselling service. So I didn’t know what to expect.”
Martin called and spoke to a counsellor for almost an hour, during which time she conducted an assessment of his needs. She suggested face-to-face counselling, but Martin felt anxious at the thought of travelling regularly for treatment.
Instead, he asked for telephone counselling.
He had his first session. While many report almost the same levels of success as face-to-face counselling, for Martin, the phone became a barrier between him and his therapist. He felt it wasn't working. His counsellor agreed.
When she suggested face-to-face counselling again, Martin mustered the courage to accept the offer. Within two days, he’d been called by his assigned counsellor and, by the very next Saturday, he started a series of six counselling sessions.
“I can’t speak more highly of my experience,” says Martin. “It was great to be able to access something supportive so quickly.” He goes on to explain, “I'd also seen the GP for antidepressants. He said the NHS counselling had a long waiting period. So we were both very pleased to hear I had access to counselling through my employer.”
Martin describes his therapist, Tina, as great. They quickly built a good relationship. She supported him through both counselling and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). And she gave Martin coping mechanisms to deal with anxiety as he felt it rising.
Once he’d finished his six weeks of EAP counselling, Martin spoke to his team leader about his situation. She said the company could extend the counselling if needed. Her focus was helping Martin get back to work in the best possible shape, ready to handle his work without impacting his health.
But Martin felt he was ready to get back to work. With the support of his manager and team, he returned to work on reduced hours.
Since then, he has worked his way steadily back to his usual working hours. He is still on medication, and has only had one panic attack since returning to work, roughly two or three weeks after he got back.
Finding balance post-breakdown
Martin says that, even though his mental health is relatively smooth since he returned to work, “it never goes away if you have a mental health issue.”
Thanks to his therapist, he now has what he calls his ‘mental toolkit’. He has ways and means of coping - strategies he can use to cope when he feels the anxiety rising or his mental health is under strain.
Tools you can use
For Martin, the longer he would have been off sick, the worse it would have been coming back. So returning to work sooner was better for him. His therapist empowered him with the confidence to come back. This may vary for each individual. It’s important for anyone battling a mental health challenge to work with their therapy teams and manager, and to assess whether they’re ready to return to work yet. It can be useful to take a little more time and get further with their healing before attempting to tackle work again after a breakdown.
Using an EAP: what worked for Martin
“If anything, I wish I'd started the counselling earlier, when I first started feeling low. I could have avoided being signed off.”
Martin found the experience of using the EAP, getting the professional help he needed, and being supported by his place of work, all helped him overcome his breakdown. He says, “Even though I was signed off I felt supported by the company. They came and saw me at home after three weeks to see how I was doing. They brought a present and a card, which made me feel like they cared. And my team leader kept in touch at least once a week by phone or email to see if I was okay.”
Clearly there’s a lot an employer can do to support the mental health of their talent. And often, it’s the little things – a card, a call, or a kind word – that make the biggest difference. We asked Martin which aspects of the experience worked best for him.
- He describes having the freedom to speak to someone who could help as one of the most useful aspects of his healing journey.
- It also helped that his GP reiterated the fact that employer-provided counselling was a good option. He felt validated in considering that option for his treatment.
- Make the call: Martin says, “Once I initiated that first call, it felt like someone was helping me. The relief was palpable.”
- Flexibility, and face-to-face counselling. For most of his treatment, Martin called the EAP from his home.
- Before he went on sick leave, his team leader made a room and time slot available (although he didn't take advantage of it).
- Having used the EAP, Martin says he’s not sure if he would have felt comfortable with having those calls at work. Even though a meeting room and dedicated time away from his desk would have made it private, he feels that calls of this nature are so personal, it could be awkward at his place of work.
- On the other hand, because his partner was home at the time, he felt he couldn't be completely honest and open in case he was overheard, misheard, and possibly hurt or worried his partner with what he said. Martin explains, “We feel like we're burdening those we love whereas, when someone is being paid to listen, we feel like less of a burden sharing our problems.”
- For these reasons, face-to-face counselling suited Martin better. He could get away from both work and home, and be completely private.
What could have been done better
Martin’s experience with the employee assistance programme, and the support he got from work during his time off, were positive. Yet he makes it clear that steps could have been taken earlier to avoid the situation escalating as it did.
He felt that there were no clear channels for conveying the level of stress he was under, or managing his growing workload. Martin encourages all employers to stay engaged with their employees, keeping a clear view of how much they have to do and whether they are able to cope with the load. “Clear communication is key,” he asserts.
An equally potent tool in managing mental health is knowing what to expect. “Once I had a clear set of objectives and I knew what to expect from work each day, it became much easier to manage my anxiety and balance my mental health in the long term.”
How to spot the warning signs of a mental health challenge
While mental health issues seem to sneak up on their victims, taking them by surprise some of the time, there are often symptoms that can be spotted early. Taking steps at the first sign of these symptoms can help someone avoid being signed off from work due to a more serious breakdown later on.
Martin describes the symptoms that alerted him to his imminent breakdown:
- Low concentration
- Low mood: “nothing made me glad”
- Fear: Martin felt the need to build up courage to come in to the office because work felt overwhelming
- Emotionally unstable: he found he was easily triggered. The smallest thing would trigger crying or a panic attack.
- A strong sense of impending doom
- Feeling detached from one’s emotions. While he was easily triggered, Martin also felt removed from feeling his emotions. He describes this as the result of a mixture of depression and anxiety.
Top take-aways: what to do in cases of mental strain?
- First of all, talk to someone. don't wait to do it
- Access the helpline: even a voice over the phone can help. It helps to talk to someone to air your worries, get clarity, feel understood, unjumble your mind
- The keyword is TALK
- Talk about how you feel
- Talk about coping strategies
- for you
- for those around you
- Talk about solutions
- Talk about the true size of the problem. It might be less serious than you think.
- Managers can be your allies. A one-to-one with a compassionate manager is almost like a counselling session. While there is always a question around whether managers have the tools to support their staff, more and more enlightened organisations are equipping their management teams with the tools they need to support those who report to them.
- A more empowered manager could help with an earlier intervention and reduce time off
One in four Britons will suffer from a mental health issue in any given year. So the question we should all be asking is, “Why is there so much fear surrounding mental health?”
People suffer in silence when they could get help.
Sharing his story, Martin bravely shows that all it takes is reaching out.
 Study conducted by the University of Cambridge together with the National Institute for Health Research Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research & Care (NIHR CLAHRC) and NHS Midlands & East, reported in PLOS ONE, 28 September 2012. More: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/therapy-over-the-phone-as-effective-as-face-to-face