Working on Mad World I've come to understand that we all have mental health that ebbs and flows. I’ve also understood that it’s only by being brave enough to share our stories that we’ll overcome the stigma that still surrounds this topic. So, it’s with trepidation that I start to write this out.
It may seem insignificant to some, but it has still taken all my courage to share. It feels intensely personal and private, so airing this publicly makes me feel very vulnerable indeed.
Even though this is a personal story, my hope is that it will help employers on their journey – particularly when it comes to working with the increasing number of contractors/freelancers/gig workers in the economy. Hopefully it will also be useful for employers who need to understand the profound impact bereavement can have.
Rewind five years to Easter 2014. My youngest son was in his final year at primary school. My eldest son was in Year 9 at high school. Life was busy. I’d already been freelancing for quite some time. I chose to freelance as this meant I could work around the school holidays, pick my kids up, be close to my ageing parents and enjoy the quality of life that Chester has to offer.
Furthermore, thanks to the digital age, I could achieve all this and still extend my experience working for market leaders. I like to think of myself as a forerunner of the gig economy! I’d been researching and developing content as a freelance conference producer for nine years. In that time, advancing and working for increasingly prestigious publishers.
In 2014 I’d taken on a particularly demanding project for a high-profile publisher. I was working long hours to make sure I delivered. Whilst the flexibility of freelancing is a massive benefit, the harsh reality is that with this flexibility comes insecurity. As a freelancer you are totally dispensable; only ever as good as your last project. You live and die by your reputation, so every project matters and the pressure was on to get this one spot on.
Three days before Easter, I received the call from my Mum, telling me that my Father had been admitted to hospital. The next three months were a whirlwind of intense emotions and activity, culminating in my Father’s passing. At the end I was totally drained.
In his last few weeks, we spent an awful, yet wonderful, time together. We revisited old memories and tiptoed around old wounds. Ultimately, I arrived at a deeper understanding of this complicated character who, when he chose to shine his gaze on me, made me feel like the most special person in his life.
Throughout, I’d carried on working – often late into the night, conscious that I had to deliver.
I had given my client some insight into what I was dealing with, so they weren’t completely surprised when I called to explain that my Father had passed away. They were kind. “Take as long as you need” they said. But it’s not quite that straight forward when you’re freelance. The buck ends with you. There’s no sick pay, no paid compassionate leave, no EAP to call, and in many cases (this one included) the client has no flex to pick up the pieces – after all, that’s why they’ve outsourced the work.
I couldn’t let my client down. I had too much to lose. So, I picked myself up, dusted myself down and set back to it – desperately chasing my tail, trying to make up for time lost during my father’s illness.
Grief is a complex emotion. For some, it can pass relatively quickly. Others find themselves experiencing an extended period of sadness that they don’t seem to be able to exit. This was me. I was numb one minute, tearful the next; irritable with my family; angry with anybody and everybody.
I soldiered on but it was getting harder and harder to focus. Harder and harder to concentrate and make the mental connections necessary to deliver a high-quality product. I would do everything I could to put off submitting my work. Finding reasons to procrastinate; working late into the night when the final deadline was looming and I couldn’t delay any longer.
I carried on, but scaled right back. Only working to a quarter of my capacity, my earnings dropped accordingly. Looking back, it’s possible I was suffering from a form of prolonged response to bereavement. Fortunately, we weren’t relying solely on my income.
According to Wikipedia while “Grief is a normal response to bereavement. Researchers have found that 10–20% of people experience a prolonged response to bereavement that impacts functioning and has adverse long-term effects on health.[4”
I knew that something was wrong, but I didn’t think to go to the doctor. What would they say? I thought about seeking professional help from a counsellor. I emailed someone locally who I’d identified through an online directory, but didn’t get any response. Anyway, the sessions were expensive and I was fine – wasn’t I?
Fast forward to the summer of 2017. I’d kept on going – kept on delivering to a high standard and my clients were happy. I was always being offered work. But I was working at less than half capacity and spending way more time than I should on each project I took on – still fretting and procrastinating over every detail. Often, I would turn new work away, feeling that I was at capacity.
That’s when I was contacted by Mark Pigou – out of the blue – asking if I would help him to look into the feasibility of an event that he had in mind called Mad World.
It was a challenging, but fascinating project which I could see was full of promise. Perhaps because Mark had already been open with me about his family’s own experiences of mental ill-health, I felt comfortable confiding that I wasn’t at my best. I wasn’t sure I could do it. “We’ll support you” he said. And that’s exactly what he’s done.
At our inaugural Mad World Forum, Sir Ian Cheshire, Chairman, Barclays UK said “The workplace is a force for good in mental wellbeing... business has to play its part and be conﬁdent about playing its part”. My experience illustrates perfectly how this can work in practice. It shows how, with the right management approaches, by creating a supportive workplace culture, with a real sense of purpose, employers – of all sizes – can support employees – of all types - through the hard times of life.
I’m eternally grateful to Mark and to Mad World’s co-founder Simon Berger for their support. They’ve had endless patience. Never a cross word if mistakes are made. Always encouraging. What do they get in return? A loyal friend and colleague who will continue to put their heart and soul into their work and is more determined than ever to deliver 100%.
From this personal experience and having worked with Mark, Simon and the other great people I work with, I’ve not only returned to firing (mostly) on all cylinders, I’ve also developed better ways to cope with the pressures that come with being a freelancer.
There are undoubtedly some things that employers can do to support the emotional wellbeing of their contract workers. I also look forward to innovation in this space from insurers and other solution providers.
At the same time, freelancers need to accept that whilst gig work has many benefits, it requires a level of resilience that many are unaware of.
With the benefits of flexibility and the freedom to manage our own workload comes the responsibility to watch out for our own physical, emotional and financial wellbeing. This includes taking care of ourselves to ensure we stay as physically and mentally fit as possible: making allowance for down time after particularly intense or stressful periods; when possible, setting funds aside to tide us through difficult times; and perhaps most importantly, not being afraid to seek help if needed.
I met last week with Rob Stephenson. I asked if he would consider including me on the InsideOut People’s List? This is a list of people who’ve spoken out about their own experiences of mental ill-health. The aim of the People’s List is to show that a significant population of role models already exist at all levels within our workplaces.
Rob suggested that, as the curator of Mad World News, I first needed to feel comfortable sharing my story with the Mad World community. He was right.
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