Exploring stress and anxiety: an Investigo roundtable

3 months ago Angharad Kenward and Melanie Robinson

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​With workers’ mental health under more strain than ever during these challenging times, our second Women’s Forum, on Monday 10th August, focused on Exploring Stress and Anxiety. Hosted by Manager Melanie Robinson and Senior Director Angharad Kenward, the event featured contributions from Paul Harlington (TUI Group), Stuart Bonner (Investigo) and Kelly Fordham (Investigo), who shared some of their personal experiences of mental ill health and offered useful tips and advice for combatting stress, anxiety and depression.

Approaches to mental health

Paul Harlington, Group Procurement Director, TUI Group

As a senior director at the world’s largest travel and tourism company, Paul is well acquainted with the pressure of seniority. There was certainly no let-up when the company was on lockdown for four months, its €1.5bn monthly revenue disappearing overnight. Having suffered from depression and helped to oversee the incredibly stressful merger that created TUI Group while going through a divorce, Paul is a passionate mental health campaigner keen to help professionals on their mental health journeys.

Stuart Bonner, Senior Director, Investigo

“It’s been a stressful morning trying to get connected,” said Stuart, who’s spent the last 20 years working in the stressful world of sales. Having been through a divorce, the challenge of looking after his daughter’s mental health during the COVID-19 crisis and been surrounded by people with mental health issues for most of his adult life, Stuart is no stranger to the dangers of mental ill health.

Kelly Fordham, Director, Investigo

Having been through her ups and down over four years at Investigo, both from a personal and leadership perspective, Kelly’s aim is to help “open up a subject which shouldn’t be as taboo as it is.” COVID has certainly had an impact on Kelly’s anxiety levels, as it has for many of us. “It’s not been easy. Those who know me will know I’m not the biggest exercise freak. I do enjoy a wine or five, but this has changed me – trying to manage my life, my other half, worrying about job security, feeling quite overwhelmed with everything. But now I’ve adjusted my life in a number of ways, including a hell of a lot of exercise. It’s been the toughest five months of my 17 years in recruitment.”

The role of the leader

“Management can be a lonely job,” said Kelly. “The job has evolved over four or five months. Initially there was the pressure to perform as a leader and not show weakness or perceived weakness. As a leader, it’s your job to absorb, put the team ahead of yourself.” Should leaders always display a veneer of invincibility in order to retain the confidence and respect of their team? Does showing weakness undermine their leadership? Or is it important to show that human side, to show that they understand their team’s feelings and challenges and are always available to support them?

“As leaders, we’re used to being the strong ones, the anchors for our team,” said Paul. “But during the crisis, none of us had any answers. Uncertainty strips away a lot of confidence for everyone. For those with anxiety, having no certainty around the future and not knowing what will happen has really added to that.” Certainly, a world of social distancing, of wearing facemasks in shops, has made this “an increasingly stressful time for everybody.” Stuart added, “Whatever your position, you need someone to turn to. Whether it’s in open forums or one-to-one conversations.”

Openness is crucial. “It’s important we are genuine about the way we’re feeling and the state of our mental health,” said Paul. “It’s all part of inclusion in the workplace. It doesn’t mean you have to talk to colleagues about your deepest, darkest secrets and feelings. But it’s okay to talk about things.” He used Winston Churchill’s “black dog” analogy to illustrate the importance of being open. Suffering from depression, Churchill referred to a negative state of mind as his black dog, its size mirroring his feelings on a particular day. He was known to come into a cabinet meeting and say that he had a “particularly big black dog” that day. But can the black dog also affect other people? “There has to be a balance. You need to be able to openly express how you’re feeling.”

Sometimes as inseparable from a management role as its very responsibilities is imposter syndrome – a feeling of chronic self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud. “You wonder whether you will wake up one day and people will find you out and you’re not as good as you’ve been told,” said Stuart. But for those who feel this way, they’d be surprised how many of their co-workers feel the same. That’s why communication, being open and honest about your feelings, is so important.

“As a female, I get told not to be emotional,” said Kelly. “But it is alright to get upset. It usually comes from a place of frustration. The more you talk about it, the better it is to deal with.” Angharad pointed out that stress and anxiety manifest in different ways, which is why we “Have to respect everybody’s reactions rather than telling them they can’t do it.” By talking, we can get to understand people’s reactions and help them through difficult times.

Told by a manager years ago to keep his emotions out of decision-making, Stuart does his best to remain “pretty level” while at work. “I want to show a balance in the office, but that doesn’t mean I can’t show vulnerability and weakness to people individually. I don’t want to bring the mood of the office down.”

Indeed, there’s strength in vulnerability. Paul cited the importance of focusing on healthy role models, which has not always happened in the corporate world. “Some of the older generation would have modelled themselves on perfect, invincible leaders, who had nothing wrong with them except when they burned out. We’ve started to recognise what a healthy leader looks like, and that includes a level of vulnerability.” Paul is part of the InsideOut Leaderboard, a social enterprise which aims to encourage leaders to open up about mental health. It’s their hope that when senior leaders publicly talk about their mental health problems, this will encourage others to do the same. “Get senior leaders to show some vulnerability. It’s one of the most powerful things you can do.”

Coping mechanisms

Thinking back to particularly stressful times in their careers, the panellists talked about some of the coping mechanisms they use when suffering from stress or anxiety.

Paul described the mental toll of the merger that formed TUI Group in 2014-15. “It was a stressful and uncertain time merging two organisations, with €18bn in turnover and 17,000 employees. There was internal lobbying as people tried to secure their jobs and pressure on leaders to avoid redundancies in their team. My drinking severely increased as a way to escape. But it became a routine. A couple of bottles every night, smoking 30 cigarettes a day. It all had an impact on my mental health. Stress depletes your energy reserves and the way you can manage mental wellness. Coupled with the impact of alcohol, it was leading into disaster.”

Immersion was a useful approach, but it’s also important to recognise that point when things are getting too much for you. “The merger served as distraction as I put everything into that. But my reserves were depleted, I crashed and entered a period of depression. I’ve gone through it a couple of times. I realised it’s a cycle and how to intervene before the crash happens. You need to learn about yourself, how you react in certain situations. Only by understanding more about yourself can you apply the right tips and tricks to manage in the most effective way for you.”

Stuart became adept at compartmentalising and worrying only about the things he could control. “Early in my career, every quarter I’d be trying to hit my numbers and would be massively stressed. Once I got so stressed that I had a big argument with my ex-wife. It took something like that to say, ‘this can’t continue.’ I focused on kickboxing and stopped having those moments. And that works for me. During lockdown I’ve been trying to learn Spanish. It’s something to take away that monotony of the COVID world and work, work, work. You’ve got to have something focusing your mind and attention, or you lose yourself in your inner thoughts and demons. The negative voice in your head that says you’re rubbish. It can spiral and turn into alcoholism or whatever it might be.”

It’s about “knowing yourself well enough to know when you’re stressed,” added Kelly. “For me, it’s wine and cigarettes and I do enjoy them, but it’s not healthy and you do lose sleep. If I don’t get decent sleep, things become very difficult. I’ve had external coaching to manage stress, that the business supported me on. One technique is compartmentalising, recognising challenges, putting them in a list and working through them one by one.” Finding that too many hours of work can ultimately prove unproductive, Kelly has also set her phone to mute emails from 7pm, allowing her valuable time to switch off. “Your world is controllable, you can choose who you speak to and when. I need moments in a week to focus on me.”

In a remote working world where the line is blurred between your home life and working life, maintaining your work-life balance is harder than ever. Referring to the “danger of professional martyrdom, carrying on regardless,” Stuart stressed the importance of taking “everything in moderation.” It’s important that you “know when you’re on your phone or working excessively, including social media.”

Kelly added, “Not knowing you’re stressed until it’s too late. That’s the challenge with stress. It’s silent. You have to go through potentially traumatic events at times to realise you’re stressed. I cut out alcohol in October and January, and it had a positive impact. Once you’ve gone dry and see a marked difference, you can control yourself better. If you know you’re stressed, you can deal with it. If you don’t, you can’t.”

Paul highlighted the dangers of social media and the importance of instead focusing on more positive sources of news. “If you feel you’re starting to struggle or slide to the negative end of the spectrum, have social media holidays. They fuel stress, anxiety, depression for a lot of people. Not picking up the phone as much, having email holidays. Try picking up a book.” Kelly added, “It’s about being honest with yourself. Is it winding you up? If it produces negative emotions, it’s not good for you.”

The simple remedies are quite often the most effective – sleep, for example. “Numerous studies prove a good night’s sleep helps with mental wellbeing, reducing stress, anxiety and depression,” said Paul. “Too many people have made a big thing of managing with a low level of sleep. Margaret Thatcher, for example. If you get seven or eight hours, you will perform so much better. If you’re drinking, your sleep won’t be as good. It’s a myth that having a nightcap helps you have a good night’s sleep.”

Despite having “spent 44 years as a cynic,” Stuart has seen the benefits of breathing exercises when it comes to reducing his daughter’s stress levels. “Breath properly and calm down. Relax your heartrate, go for a run to release adrenaline.” Yoga and meditation are also effective methods of relaxation for many people.

The circle of trust

It’s important to have several trusted people who you can confide in and share stresses and concerns, ideally a mix of professionals and personal acquaintances. “Don’t think of it as offloading,” said Paul. “You’re just being honest with them. Talking to a professional will always help if you’re suffering from a mental health issue. I’ve been to see a counsellor previously. Speak to a professional and use your support network. Don’t overburden them, but use them. Talking about these issues normalises them, helps you rationalise and put them into perspective. Therapists don’t give you answers to all of life’s problems. Just speaking to a councillor is not enough. Speak to the people around you as well.”

Stuart saw a therapist when going through his divorce. Although he felt there was a stigma attached to it at the time, speaking to a professional was massively helpful. “It’s about knowing who you can talk to. As long as they can empathise and offload themselves. You’re more comfortable if they’ve gone through similar things. Sharing is how I got through it. It’s really healthy.” Kelly confides in mainly three key people, who she trusts to help her through rough patches.

With a fine line between resilience and martyrdom, many people still choose to suffer in silence. “I want people to look at me and say it’s fine for me to talk about it,” said Stuart. “You couldn’t 20 years ago. When a leader showed vulnerability, that’s when you realised it was okay. If you’re in a leadership position, show it’s acceptable to have down days. The more people open up, the more others will.”

“With my team, 25% have come over to me in the last eight years to say they felt some form of depressional anxiety,” said Paul. “They all asked me not to share. They were suffering in silence, not realising that they were maybe sitting next to someone else who might have had the same thing. Coupled with admitting I’d suffered myself, this helped people open up.”

The difference between stress and anxiety

“There’s stress and there’s stress, there’s anxiety and there’s feeling anxious,” said Paul. “A certain level of stress allows us to perform. It’s an issue when there’s an overload of stress, or when it’s prolonged. It’s the same with anxiety. You might feel anxious about a project or sales target, but that doesn’t mean it’s generalised anxiety disorder. Nothing’s binary, everything regarding mental health is on a spectrum, in levels. By recognising and adjusting, you can find how to deal with it.”

He added, “With generalised anxiety disorder, you might expend so much energy in a day managing your anxiety levels and trying to appear okay, that you might go home and straight to bed. People feel they have to go to such extremes to hide the fact they’re not okay.”

It’s important for leaders to provide an environment free from judgement, where people feel safe to share their feelings. When thinking about approaching others to discuss their mental health, Paul feels that people should, “Prepare and do some scripting, make some notes to get your points across eloquently. Be prepared for people not to understand the first time. Generalised anxiety disorder manifests differently in differently people. It can by nature be random in how it appears. People can have it for years and not understand the triggers.”

Mental health post-lockdown

There’s no denying that the last few months have taken their toll on people’s mental health. When we return to normal, when people start commuting again and seeing less of their family, how do we maintain our mental health? “I’m not commuting so I’ve got no excuse,” said Kelly. “If I can’t lose weight during this, there’s no hope for me! I’m changing my routine before I go back. I’ve got a bike and I’ll be riding to work. Make changes now and make them part of the routine.”

“Mental health is so personal for each individual,” said Stuart. During tough times, he found focus from being strong for other people. “It sounds crazy that focusing on other people’s problems eliminated mine, but everyone has to find their own ways of getting through this. Exercising, taking comfort from sessions like this. Whatever helps you through it, get other people to do it with you to create the habit.”

Paul stressed the importance of having at least two coping mechanisms that work for you. “If you rely completely on exercise and then get injured, your coping mechanism is removed and you crash. Don’t underestimate the anxiety people will face going on public transport again, being in public places. If you suffer for anxiety and find social interaction stressful, you will have found a lot of relief in lockdown and going back to a social environment will take its toll. Be conscious of this.”

Many thanks to our panellists for their insights, their advice and their honesty. If you’d like to talk to us about managing stress and anxiety in your team, please get in touch at contactus@investigo.co.uk