Q. How does work generally (and working from home in particular) affect your mental wellbeing?
PB. I think we all go to work to do the best job we can do. Those expectations of yourself can sometimes affect your mental wellbeing because there are factors outside your control that can impact your day such as changing deadlines or client requirements. A nice, calm, simple day can change suddenly and people can react differently to that. That comes with the territory in any job, but if it starts to become the norm, I know from personal experience that it can have a negative impact. And as I’ve progressed my career and been promoted into senior management, there are fewer people you can turn to for support.
Covid has obviously affected everyone and whilst working from home has obvious benefits, I’ve personally found it hard to take a break or know when to stop working – before the clocks went forward this year I’d often find myself in the darkness looking at my computer screen and wondering how I hadn’t managed to get out of the house for the entire day.
PP. I’m a perfectionist, setting myself unrealistic standards that constantly shift. Even the most basic tasks I see as a challenge. That can be hard to manage in the best of times. During lockdown that got even harder as my “To-do” list - with no boundary between work and home – was a visible constant in my day. In the office, you would at least have a break – whether that was to meet a friend for coffee, or chat with colleagues in a break-out area – but at home that’s much harder and you have to be careful not to over-work or beat yourself up for not having completed everything.
I joined Asta last summer just as the pandemic was in full swing and the thing that surprised me the most was just how much trust was given to staff to get on and do the job. In previous roles working from home was a “perk” and something that was heavily monitored – even at senior level. Whilst Covid forced this on most employers, it would have been very easy for Asta to have been heavy-handed when it came to managing people, but they’ve provided an environment where people feel both trusted and empowered. The positive impact this then has on wellbeing can only be good for staff and the business as a whole.
Q. What other impacts of COVID have you experienced and how have you dealt with those specifically?
PB. We’d only been in lockdown for 6 weeks and we very sadly lost one of our colleagues to Covid. That was when the situation hit home and I was put in a position that even the best management course could not have prepared me for. Telling colleagues and clients was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, especially remotely. In a way though, talking about it helped me deal with my feelings and also made me realise what was important to me. As a team, we were hit hard both emotionally and from a work perspective, but the way we all pulled together to support each other was amazing. I learnt that what I thought were working relationships with colleagues had become good friendships that not only saw us through the shock and stress of that time but have endured ever since.
Some team members needed more support than others and in a way that helped me. We said to take as much time as people felt they needed and as well as having support from Asta’s Mental Health First Aiders, everyone else gave Finance “space” for a few weeks. Of course, we still had to get through the work but knowing the support was there – even if it was just a phone call – was reassuring. The next step for all of us is to return to the office in a few weeks and to once again remember our friend and colleague – and just get that first difficult day done.
PP. One of the challenging things about COVID is the different ways people respond to it. My wife is a Doctor so you get a stronger sense than most about what’s going on and the terrible impact that Covid is having on people’s lives. Having that knowledge can create a “them and us” situation, putting strain on relationships when people have different views on the rights and wrongs of restrictions and personal behaviour. I found the best way to deal with that is to do what I think is right and to not put myself in situations that make me feel uncomfortable.
Q. What tools or support do you use to help with your wellbeing? (Have these changed during COVID?)
PB. Physical fitness is a big thing for me, whether it’s running, cycling or figuring out the huge range of programmes on my Peloton bike (it’s not just about cardio – you can do yoga and meditation too). If I’m feeling down or my legs ache because I’ve been sitting for so long, I know I will feel better once I’ve done some exercise. That’s been easier during the lockdown and is one of the benefits of working from home – no dodging London lunch-time traffic or queuing in the gym or for the office shower!
PP. Like Pete, exercise is key although I’m a little less disciplined. I go through phases where I’m either training for the next Olympics or simply doing stand ups from a sitting (on the sofa) position.......! Beyond that music has been very influential in my life and I enjoy everything depending on the mood I’m in. I used to be a chef catering at events like T4 On the Beach and I got to see all sorts of different acts. If I need to concentrate on work though, some 90s Trance music usually helps. On that subject let there be no more said. Or the Calm app is really good as they have playlists for different moods which help me to push out some of the other things that might be on my mind.
Q. What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with their mental health and who feel they don’t know how to get - or find it difficult to ask for - support?
PB. For anyone active on social media they will know how it can portray an image of others where their world is apparently perfect and stress-free and how that can potentially make your feelings even worse. So it’s important to remember that you’re not the only one who feels the way you do. It’s also important to do what’s right for you – if there is an expectation that you should be seeking help in a particular way, that can add to the pressure, so do what you feel is right at the time. That could simply mean going for a walk or meeting someone for a coffee. It might mean talking to a medical professional, but in my experience, you have to be ready to accept that kind of help otherwise it could be counter-productive.
PP. I always found that if something is getting me down I do something physical. This works up to a point, but increasingly I have found that the problem that led me to exercise in the first place is still a problem after I’ve finished. Difficult as it was (and still is) for me, breaking down the barrier to have that first conversation about “this is how I feel” is a massive first step. And sometimes it doesn’t need to go any further than that. A problem shared as they say...
Q. How does Asta support your mental wellbeing (generally and during COVID)?
PB. There has always been a big focus on staff wellbeing at Asta and this increased during lockdown as everyone became aware very quickly of the potential problems that isolation, caring for a young family or dealing with Covid could have on people. Weekly email updates from our CEO, daily wellbeing tips posted to our intranet, monthly staff briefings and regular HR bulletins offering advice – these were just some of the things that were very effective in the early days. As we have got into more of a routine, we now use Teams where we can join a virtual coffee morning or visit the virtual kitchen for lunch with colleagues. When restrictions have allowed, meetups between staff who are local to each other have been a great way to break the monotony and get to know people from outside your team.
PP. Asta has been very proactive about bringing people together and trying different ways to help everyone stay engaged at some level. From a team perspective, we have twice weekly catch-ups and for one of them we all go for a walk while online on Teams – we talk about work but it’s a bit more relaxed and informal. As I’m new to the team that’s been a great way to get to know people better. In Internal Audit, I’m used to people approaching me with pitchforks but Teams helps to break down barriers and enables people to talk to more easily. Even if is to discuss how we can improve internal controls and operational processes!
Q. Do you think there is a link between physical and mental health?
PB. Simply going for a walk helps to clear my head or think through a problem and I would urge everyone to make time in their day to do the same.
PP. Definitely. I used to cycle to and from work and even though a large part of that ride was focused on getting home safely, when I did get home after a bad day I’d feel completely different. With the commute gone, for now, I’ve tried yoga but I’m obviously missing something as I always feel as if I should do some “proper” exercise afterwards!
Q. (How) do you think attitudes towards Mental Health and Awareness have changed over recent years?
PB. Attitudes have changed a lot for the better over the years. My impression growing up was that mental health was considered taboo and counselling was something you only saw in bad American television dramas. But counselling has gradually become more accessible and “acceptable” for people to firstly acknowledge that they have a problem, and to then realise that you don’t have to deal with it on your own. Hopefully, those barriers to improving mental wellbeing are no longer there for those just starting their careers and that some of the causes of poor mental health such as sexuality or gender issues are gradually receding too.
PP. I think people are more open to publicly discussing mental health and that’s helped by those with a public profile speaking out. Storytelling is essential to get rid of the stigma and encourage people to open up about themselves. Attitudes have changed to depression with more and more people recognising that it’s not simply a case of “just feeling a bit down” or something “you’ll get over”.
Q. Do you think it’s easy to have conversations about stress and mental health with friends and colleagues? Any advice on how these conversations can happen?
PB. It’s good to see we’re finding ways – such as this interview for Mental Health Awareness Week – to encourage those conversations. We need to keep the conversations going, however, and regular reminders about all the available support is essential both for existing staff and those who join us in the future. It’s very easy for people to forget or not know, so good internal communication has a critical role to play.
PP. The remote environment helps you have different conversations from those you would have in the office. Just being open and prepared that the person you are talking to maybe struggling is important – you never know how someone’s feeling. Talking about your feelings is not a bad thing. We can talk about our emotions and feelings when it comes to things like sport or music or anything else that interests us – so why not our mental health? Once you’ve had that opening chat you realise that people won’t hold it against you and that all any of us really want to do is to look out for each other.
Q. The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness week is ‘nature” – what does that mean to you?
PB. I’ve discovered new parts of the countryside local to me that I had never previously seen, mainly because I’ve been in the car driving somewhere else. Lockdown has shown me how lucky I am to live in an area where within 500 metres I’m surrounded by farmland that I’ve been able to explore whilst walking or running. I’ve appreciated the outdoors much more as a result.
PP. For me, nature means behaving like a kid – building dens or doing adventure trails with my son. We’ve been stuck inside for most of the last twelve months so let’s get out there and experience what the world has to offer!