Signing the "Time to Change" Pledge; Mental Health at Newman Students' Union, My Journey and Forward Thinking!
I wanted to write this blog as General Manager of the Students' Union to demonstrate that if I can talk openly about Mental Health, then my staff and our students can too. Before I start to write about the "Time-to-Change" Pledge that was submitted today, I wanted to take time to say that this blog will be real, honest and contain my own personal struggles, so please, if anything, be kind.
The "Time To Change" Pledge
On 6th March 2020, I submitted Newman Students' Union's (NSU) pledge to talk about Mental Health in the workplace; this isn't a "tickbox exercise" - its a detailed plan that will start to form conversations around our structure, our strategy and our culture in terms of how we respond to, deal with and talk about Mental Health. You can read the "Time to Change" Pledge HERE. This will be formally signed by myself ands Chris Black (President of NSU) at the Annual General Meeting on Tuesday 17th March 2020.
But why is it so important?
Mental Health is just as important as physical health. Mental illness may be detrimental to a person, as it impact happiness, productivity and collaboration. Mental health issues may affect organisations like ours, in the form of: Turnover; Absenteeism; Poor employee performance; Employee substance abuse; Work-related accidents; and Workplace violence or harassment. More specifically to NSU, poor Mental Health of its Staff and Officers leads to an inconsistent rate of support to students, which can in turn affect students opportunities and wellbeing.
Aside from the organisations risks, it's important because we're human.
I like to think that, despite having those "off days" where you may see me pacing around the office, stressed and a little angry (let's be real here, we all have those days), I care about people. I care about my staff and our students and that's not just because of the fact that i love my job, but because I am human. I am literally just a guy who loves his job, wants to provide for his family and often gets things wrong... Sometimes its easy to forget this, when we criticise others, when we don't reach out for support or when we critique ourselves. I know this, because I am my own worst critic.
My Experience of Mental Health
Not many people in the University and at work will know but three years ago I had a major breakdown while working at Newman. The organisation was at a difficult turning point and I was working in areas completely unknown to me (you can see our development HERE) and I had many personal things going on at home including family deaths all at the same time. I had a complete breakdown and became suicidal, forcing time off work. Fortunately for me, I work for an organisation who understands and gave me the time I needed (although back then we didn't have policies to cover it, we just had a really fantastic Board of Trustees).
I have also recently reflected on how people in Union staff roles need to be resilient, more than any other industry I know. I recently posted on my personal Social Media account the following:
"Writing our "Time to Change" pledge mental health strategy for work, and I've realised how resilient we must be in SUs. From trying to diplomatically deal with dissatisfied students who (some of which) will absolutely and relentlessly, without a care for your mental health, tell you that everything you pour your soul into is s***, to balancing the needs of the elected officers (who are passionate activists but not chosen by you) against maintaining a relationship with the institution as primary funders.
Add that to having a new team every year, keeping up to date with ever changing government legislation and the OfS requirements and still doing the role and jobs of any charity CEO (finance, governance, GDPR, staffing etc). It's absolutely rough at times. But we love what we do because we see the impact our powerful little organisations have on many many young people's lives."
I think my point is that, we are all human. We all have good and bad days, and we all have days where we might snap at each other. We all have days where we look at our workload and think, "I can't do this" - I do this on a regular basis but somehow come out the other side.
I think what has been important for me is that I have been lucky enough to talk about how I feel, express it to my family and my colleagues and talk about what my anxieties are. I am able to talk about what I don't like and what I don't respond well to - I recently had a conversation with our President about something that I don't respond well to, which prompted him to do the same, and now we have learnt from each other. But while I set some of my expectations of Chris, I am not self-absorbed enough to expect him to behave in ONLY the ways that make me feel good about myself, or in ways which don't set off my triggers; part of this process is understanding others and what their triggers might be. Part of my own individual learning has been to adapt my style of working (even sometimes against my better judgement) to ensure that I am maximising the potential from the room, and being cautious of others Mental Health.
again, I don't always get this right, and I am certainly not perfect at anything I do, but the reflection and action and willingness to change and learn is what is important.
The Next Steps
While the Board were absolutely fantastic by being flexible, and allowing for time off and away from work, none of this was covered in policy. We didn't have the structures in place to support staff as the "norm", and we never really spoke about Mental Health, and where potentially we could have prevented this from happening.
Mental Health affects 1in3 people, and now is time to stop simply sharing posts on Social Media with tokenistic hashtags; and to create strategies that genuinely help people. While I am Mental Health First Aid trained, I am not an expert, and using this "Time to Change" pledge has helped me in identifying where we can, as an employer, support our Staff, not just in token gesture, but through our policies and structures.
One of my biggest projects at the moment is how we create a good work/life balance for our staff. We know that as a smaller Union, we put a lot of pressure on our teams to deliver at a high standard, across a number of projects, where other Unions have several staff to deliver individual projects, and what is important is how we reward that, and allow for a clear space to speak about Mental Health.
The most "out-there" plan for the Union at the moment is to offer a four day work week for our staff who work relentlessly to provide students with opportunities and support. This won't affect students in terms of Office opening hours; we will simply stagger staff working hours to ensure that staff are rested and supported enough to support you.
I want to make a commitment to our staff and students that we take Mental Health seriously and that we provide opportunities for support, and procedures to make life easier. More than anything, I want us, as an organisation to be kind.
There are lots of other plans in our pledge, which can be found HERE, but who knows what the future will hold. All I ask is that students and staff join us on this journey, be kind to each other, talk and reach out.
My Top Five Tips To Help (The things I do!)