Interview with Nick Elston – talking to an employer about your mental health challenges from a position of strength

Nick is a well-known professional speaker on the subjects of Anxiety, Mental Health and Wellbeing. He delivers a keynote seminar ‘Talking Anxiety’, sharing his own story and learning to help others. Nick also runs ‘Forging People’, where he deliveries training to help people improve become professional speakers as well as running workshops and coaching on wellbeing and motivation. Nick’s website can be found here.

So Nick, on this topic of speaking to employers, sharing from a position of strength rather than embarrassment or shame, do you have some initial thoughts that you’d like to share?
As an overview to this kind of topic, I think most of my learning has been through lived experience. While we’ve lived through a kind of a cultural, and even a generational shift about talking about this stuff, even in a professional environment, it’s not it’s not great by any stretch.

I used my speaking as a therapy – I actually used it to recover from a point of mental breakdown.  If it wasn’t for me kind of sharing and speaking about those challenges, I would have always stayed at the same point. I think that’s kind of the problem – the fact that we’re scared to be open we’re scared to show ourselves, because our narrative tells us that we’re going to be shocked at what we tell ourselves. Even when thinking about kind of sharing our stuff automatically our conditioning gets in our way. So, I’m a firm believer we have all the answers, we just don’t ask ourselves the right questions and we were not honest with ourselves.

It’s really fascinating that it wasn’t until I decided to actually show the world ‘me’ – but no holds barred – that was when things started to get better. At that point I didn’t have a business, I was purely speaking – whereas now I’ve got a business, the whole drive being to help take people from adversity to excitement and use their challenges as a positive catalyst for change. And the reason I did this this was because we either let our adversities, our challenges, or our conditions, define use negatively, or we allow it to forge something better. We allow it afford something beautiful, something powerful that never existed without you going through your stuff in the first place.  And that’s what I love is the same energy it takes to destroy us as it does to create something exciting – but the difference is the element of choice.

We cannot control the uncontrollable (actually the pursuit was doing so creates anxiety in the self), but we can choose every single day how we live and experience our own lives. That’s kind of the best work I do personally – both as a speaker and also as a coach and trainer – is to give people that choice to actually gain an element of control over their own life, especially now more than ever because we live in a culture that is just so busy firefighting that we never take a step back. The reason why things like burnout and breakdown and stress are so evident is because nobody schedules recovery. Nobody knows what they love to do anymore and actually the stuff that’s really good for their soul. And we’re just filling up our time with other people’s stuff and I think that’s the bit that kind of scares most people is when they start to realise that they get they give themselves away, most of the time to appease other people. It becomes a comfort zone. Comfort zones don’t have to be comfortable, for example you see people that are in toxic relationships, you see people that are in really bad kind of jobs, but it’s she’s easier to stay where you are then to do something about it. For a person to step out of their comfort zone is to break their conditioning and do something different.

The interesting thing is the more we do something the more we become conditioned. For example, if you say ‘I am rubbish’, then that’s you, you’re speaking in the first person, but scarily, most of the time we say to ourselves, you are rubbish. And that is really scary, because that’s what somebody else has told us. We can find out so much just be listening to how we talk to ourselves.

We really struggle to ask ourselves the right questions because sometimes we’re just scattered truth scatter the answer. And so that’s how I see things, the fact that we need to get good with ourselves first before we can open up to any environment. And I don’t recommend anybody do that by the way, but that kind of that point of breakdown does give you a kind of a fresh start mentality. And you see this a lot with people that have been pretty big experiences – I’m working with a client now has been through the London bombings. Instead of letting the experience define him in a negative way, what I’ve done is help to turn his experience into a message he can deliver to people; that may be delivering a message which is one of inspiration, which is one of hope. So, I haven’t changed what’s happened to him. The one thing I’ve done is to reframe the way that he sees that experience. Sometimes you see with people, when something big impacts their life, they’ve used as a positive catalyst for change, such as fundraising for charity.

So, for me, before you open up is you need to get to put yourself first. Sometimes you will need outside help, whether that be professional, such as counselling or talking therapists. Somebody that you trust to challenge you in a positive way – who wouldn’t be afraid to say, I think you’re wrong. Then once you’ve got the confidence and strength in your own abilities, decide on and clarify what you think. Then you can go forward and open up to anybody -in some ways in a professional environment it is a tad easier because actually there are legalities there to protect you to safeguard you.

What would be the next steps you would advise a student?

Once you’ve decided to open up, and it’s the first time ever you’re going to have this type of conversation, it’s good to have an idea of where you want the conversation to go – know the desired outcome you want, for example, is to make yourself feel better, is it to be heard and understood, is it to increase awareness in case something happens, or do you want the employer to do something about it, such as employee assistance? Knowing your desired outcome ahead of time is especially important but most of the time we don’t start with what we actually want the way forward to be.

For me, I just needed to let me my employer know, so sometimes I could say ‘I’m struggling right now, this why’, or ‘I’m okay, I’m doing my job an everything else is pretty good’. What I did was basically building a ‘buffer zone’ so they would understand.

If you’re looking at things like disability or mental illness as opposed to mental health, then that desired outcome then could be actually ‘what is my management plan’. Is there a structure of in terms of line manager or direct clear reach help or assistance? What is your employee assistance programme? What’s that about do you offer that, which gives them direct routes counselling? And what else you provide for people could be about health care? It’s not a conversation to go into unplanned,  because what you’ll find is if you go in and you’ll end up at the end with so many more questions afterwards.

So write down some bullet points, firstly related to you and your situation, and secondly about the your desired outcome of the conversation. Start with the end in mind.

It is also worth remembering that, that in our own mind’s things like this can be all consuming. However, the employer might be having lots of these conversations with other staff every day. We believe that our challenges are unique to us, and when you share you realise that your challenges are not unique to you. And that’s when you find community, that’s when you find people that have been through exactly the same as you.

So what you’ll find is that in doing this process and sharing, you’ll have a sense of relief that it’s done, which will make you feel better and more confident, but on the flip side, if they don’t react the way that you want and are unsupportive, you may think that actually this is not the sort of culture you want to work in.

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