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My story of trial and error…

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and whilst it’s something we all have, “we all have mental health, it’s just good or bad”, it’s a debate that is painfully absent in business and commonly behind a closed door when business has to “deal with it”, but this needs to change.

So this week, I am going outside of my comfort zone, outside what most finance leaders are prepared to do and sharing my own experience of bad mental health; the three occasions it impacted me and the businesses I worked for, and how I learnt how to get support to ensure positive outcomes for me and my boss.

‘None but ourselves can free our minds’ – Bob Marley

Introduction

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking to a pioneering Finance Director, Jonny Jacob of Starbucks, who is leading the debate around Mental Health in Business, or as he prefers to call it “Mental Fitness”, as it evokes a positive message. His example and the honest article from my colleague, Mark Cracknell, inspired me to write this article.

Third time lucky! How NOT to manage your mental health

The first time I hit a wall in my working life, was when I was Financial Controller for a retail distribution company. I had discovered a £1.5M fraud perpetrated by the CFO and decided to take on the forensic work and manage the legal case that followed.

After 6 months of triple hatting (FC, CFO and legal eagle), working crazy hours in the belief I would be rewarded for this work, I hit a wall. At the age of 32, I felt burnt out, so one day without sharing the workload, without seeking support, without really doing anything constructive, I resigned and moved to another company without reason.

In this case, I didn’t help myself, for sure. I was holding on to the work as I wanted to “own it”, claim the kudos, take the prize, but this martyr approach serviced no one.

Whilst I did a lot wrong, I also had zero support from my CEO and new Group CFO, and was “allowed” to do the work. After all, it saved on a lot of consulting fees and I knew the fraud details better than anyone. This should not have been allowed to happen.

Learning # 1 – ASK FOR HELP, DO NOT BE A MARTYR, BOSSES NEED TO BE AWARE OF THEIR TEAMS MENTAL HEALTH

Many years later, I was leading a programme in a global company, that I was over the moon to be working for. The company was a pioneer in its field and I was so proud to be heading up the EU phase of a cool project.

By this time, I was happily married, living my best life and very settled in London. My wife and I had just had a beautiful baby boy and I felt on top of the world!

The challenge with my new role was difficult to see before I joined. The company was US-centric; I had a direct reporting line to the west coast of the US, some 7 hours behind the UK. I had a technology team in India, 5.5 hours ahead of the UK, and 20+ stakeholder countries in the EU.

My day started early, making sure I had time to understand tech status and project actions, it was intense during UK time with a very ambitious roll out across the EU, and it ended late with reporting back to the US.

Long day, no problem, but then I had a 2 hour commute both way to HQ, and a one year old boy, who, whilst beautiful, was rather noisy at night. Needless to say, after 9 months I was feeling the balance wasn’t right. But with management in the US and no eyes on me, I felt I had no one to turn too.

Despite this being the possible highlight of my finance transformation career, I kept the problem to myself, decided to complete wave one, fall on my sword and find another job. After all, Wave 2 was going to be in Asia, with me managing it from the EU, so I couldn’t see a way through.

Learning # 2 – ASK FOR HELP! (Yep, I didn’t learn from my first experience!), AT INTERVIEW, ASK CULTURE FIT & WORKING CONDITIONS QUESTIONS, AND DON’T RESIGN FROM AMAZING COMPANIES, IF YOU ARE A GOOD FIT THEY WILL WANT YOU TO STAY!

The last time I need support at work, I got it right and it has got me to where I am today. I joined a great company with an exceptional boss. We were doing some groundbreaking work, but unfortunately, politics lead the organisation, I was very action-focused and I didn’t fit the dynamic.

I could see a difficult time ahead, and felt trapped in this role, but this time was different. Learning from my past and having a great boss, made all the difference.

I was supported to talk openly about the situation, even though I knew it was not going to affect the leadership dynamic, I was supported to make a change, and a positive one within the company. Like I said, if they have employed you they want you, so don’t let bad situations fix your decision making.

This time, I was able to develop a new role for myself, aligned to my strengths and skills, and build a team around me that supported my leadership style, and cover my weaknesses (we all have them!).

Learning # 3 ASK YOUR BOSS FOR SUPPORT, AT INTERVIEW, ASK HOW THEY SUPPORT STAFF IN DIFFICULT CIRCUMSTANCES, ASK TO BE A “MENTAL FITNESS” CHAMPION TO ENSURE EVERYONE UNDERSTANDS THE BENEFITS OF THIS SUPPORT AND YOU HAVE IT IF NEEDED.

The epiphany that it’s best to talk about your stresses at work, and work with your boss and your company on negative situations (and potential mental health problems) came way too late for 32 year old Chris Argent, but not anymore.

Older, wiser, let’s keep talking!


18-24 May is Mental Health Awareness week in the UK. Please visit the Mental Health Foundation website for a wealth of resources and information on mental health for employees and businesses.

If you are suffering from mental health issues, this link provides details on services and organisations that offer help and support directly.

You’re not alone; talk to someone you trust. Sharing a problem is often the first step to recovery.