Our Sector: SU Managers and Mental Health- Strictly Private & Confidential?

My name is Steve Coole and I am the current NUS Wales Director. I have worked in the student movement for 13 years and was diagnosed with depression in 2016.

The student movement is very dear to me, as are the wonderful people that have taught me so much. It’s shaped me and improved me as a person, so I hope this piece on my own experience of fighting and managing depression gives something back to others who may also be struggling with what essentially is a life threatening illness. I also hope to provide some insights for managers who are currently trying to manage or support a colleague who may be suffering from depression, or generally going through a very difficult time.

With any staff illness, there usually a delicate balance to be struck in ensuring both the best interests of the organisation and the individual. Most of us would agree that whilst students’ unions need standards and practices in their policies to manage sickness, any policy that works to ensure the wellbeing of their employees should start with the person’s needs first- an approach which ultimately leads to healthier employees that deliver for students. This should be the starting point for managing mental illness, and in my view the process should be treated no differently to any other form of illness.

However, the reality is that managing someone with poor mental health is not as common as managing someone with an illness that has a clear cause and recovery timeframe- there is not necessarily a clear beginning or end point. So as with anything you want to improve, I suggest doing the research and bringing in the necessary expertise and advice to help the organisation to learn and grow. If your role is responsible for enabling and supporting (in the main) young people that have been propelled into positions of power (and their first experience of employment), you need bags of patience and understanding- so we should all be capable of dealing with the first step in managing and supporting someone who may be suffering with their mental health.

My experience as an employee

  1. It was actually one of my colleagues in NUS that spotted some of the symptoms, or perhaps recognise the long list of challenges that originally led to me going off work. I was told to go home, and clear my diary for the next two weeks whilst they managed the situation at work for me. Having this original time off helped me to identify that I had a bigger problem, and the next piece of advice I received was to go to my GP. I received my diagnosis and my colleagues in the NUS People Team were swift and clear with their advice about what I needed to do, and they helped me take things one step at a time.
  2. Having a constant point of contact in the organisation while I was off work was vital, whether it was my manager or a member of the NUS People Team, the effort to keep in touch with me demonstrated that my illness was being taken seriously, and offered vital reassurance at a time when I was doubting myself, and feeling incredibly negative about the world around me. My manager also came out to visit me at my house on multiple occasions, and these visits were invaluable in helping me to deal with my anxiety and clarify the reality of the situation I was in.
  3. Linked to this, I was never rushed off the phone and was always given time to talk things through in terms of where I was at. Of course, my manager didn’t provide counselling, often they would just listen, reassure me about my strengths and experience, and agree when the next point of contact would be in line with counselling and medical appointments.
  4. An occupational health referral provided a set of recommendations to highlight changes that could be made by me, and the organisation. For example, my working pattern, location of work, overnight stays, fortnightly check ins with my manager and, specifically, how I use my time on my daily commute from Bristol to Cardiff and the impact this has on my working hours, as previously I didn’t include them (despite working both ways on the train).
  5. I have now agreed a set of different behaviours and habits that were present when I first started to slip with my manager (and at home), and this is recorded in my individual performance plan. This is to help those around me identify certain behaviours and habits, along with the permission to point these out to me if and when they spot them. In addition to this, I have recorded a variety of tools that I use to help manage my mental health. There are also certain ‘triggers’ that were present, some of which are going to always be a part of my life, so again it is about recording these so the organisation and I can take proactive steps as and when these circumstances arise.

As a senior manager, my experiences will always come to mind if I am managing someone who is in that terrible place, which means I might be able to apply a certain level of empathy. That’s not to say that you can’t empathise if you haven’t had a diagnosis because we all have our challenging circumstances and we all have mental health in the same way we all have physical health.

Where an employee has a physical illness it’s often much easier to agree with them that their capability is affected. But with mental health issues it’s harder. At the time I didn’t accept my diagnosis. I didn’t fully recognise my behaviours and their impact on others. I did know something wasn’t right and whilst on paper I was happy with my situation, in practice there were problems.

Questions ran through my head which are questions shared by many others in this situation. Was I too proud or embarrassed to admit I might be suffering from a mental illness, especially as someone in a senior position? Would I be labelled ‘weak’ or ‘not capable’? Would I just be added to the list of the ‘recent’ and ‘soaring cases’ of mental health that organisations (including SU’s) are regularly talking about needing to ‘manage’? Either way I have concluded that these questions are probably quite common for anyone who is struggling, probably because collectively society designs our behaviours and approach to things, and often in an unconscious way. And problematic constructs of a “strong leader” are doubtless why men are less likely to talk about their mental health.

What did I learn as a leader, and as a manager?

  1. Saying you trust someone to do their job is one thing, demonstrating your trust in them is another. Understanding that behaviours and actions can all be interpreted in different ways by different people has helped me to stop and think before acting. My passion for the student movement means my intentions are always positive and good, but in an organisation that values collectivism, it is through the people and giving away responsibility and ownership that will truly achieve change, I can’t do it all on my own and what makes me so special to think that I can, and should? I need to act on the trust that I say I give, by enabling the staff to perform their roles and gain the necessary experience to help them grow and develop.
  2. Work should never come first, and if I am honest, more often than not, it did. I have learnt that looking after myself and putting energy into that has improved the effectiveness and quality of my work, and remarkably, I am probably getting more done now than I was previously. In turn, my approach is being well received by the team, and for the first time I feel much more part of that team, as its Director.
  3. There are those that want to see you fail, and there always will be in life. As a student officer or senior manager we are in the firing line for a variety of different reasons. Moving into senior roles presents challenges as we shift from team member (many of us who had a strong track record for effectively working with student officers) to leader that has the tough conversations, makes unpopular decisions, and balances the political direction and will of the officers, with the morale and motivation of the staff team. Rather than learn something new from this, it has rather reinforced something I have always believed. It made me realise that I now have a very different role in delivering the will of the officers, through managers, and that I needed to build my resilience and confidence. I needed to step out of my comfort zone if I was to become an effective leader, and stop wanting to always be the ‘doer’. I have always championed and firmly believe that the officers make the final decisions on our political direction, and that as a staff member in our environment you need to either accept this, or move on.
  4. Depression and my mental health won’t define me, it will refine me. I am using my experience to learn, and refine my management and leadership style. Whilst my character and behaviours may have partly led to me becoming ill, I have accepted that they are a part of me, they make me who I am, and have enabled me to achieve what I have achieved. I need to celebrate that, and have faith and confidence in my approach, I now focus on my strengths in a way that I never have before. Focusing on my strengths has enabled me to talk about, and publish my experience in this article, for example.
  5. Not everyone feels the same about the student movement, or has the same personal connection, impressing this on others may lead to not connecting with them. Treat people as you like to be treated, but don’t expect of others what you expect of yourself. I am still learning to manage those expectations on both fronts. I reflect far more, I listen, and I try to create space for myself and those that I work with to think about how we achieve our goals.

Whilst I am open to sharing some my circumstances, equally I don’t want to use this article as the place to list everything that was going on because as I said, we all have our own set of circumstances that challenge, and test us. I want to focus on the things that helped me to recover, and continue to manage on a daily basis. The outcome of my previous episodes is an increased level of self-awareness, and a growing set of tools that enable me to manage and function from day to day:

Medication To take medication for any illness is a personal choice. I chose to take medication because my body wasn’t getting enough serotonin. If a doctor prescribes you something for terrible pain, such as morphine or other forms of painkiller, I imagine more often than not you would take the medical advice to ease the suffering? Whilst anti-depressants cannot relieve the suffering on their own, they do play a part in restoring some balance to your body and with other measures in place such as exercise, they will prove to be more effective.

Exercise From not being able to cut the grass or do other basic household tasks, I am now running half marathons and have lost 1 stone 9 pounds over the last 4 months. I have also combined my exercise with the outcomes of talking therapy, for example, I am taking on an extreme walking challenge to raise money for MacMillan by walking from Bristol to Lands End in 7 days to mark 7 years since his death, as I didn’t grieve properly when he passed and because I had a promise to keep. Having something to focus on has been great, and the key will be to find the next thing to focus on following the walk. On a more practical level, I have also turned my daily the commute from Bristol to Cardiff into a positive experience where as previously it had started to drain me. I now walk to and from the station at each end of the commute meaning I achieve my daily exercise goals before I arrive at the office. My Fitbit has also been a key factor in helping me, as wearing the wristband not only helps me to measure and monitor my health, it also acts as a visual reminder to me for why I felt the need to buy it in the first place.

The people around you Understanding, time, patience and support. On reflection, these were the things I needed most from others, and fortunately I received this both at home and at work. It is not lost on me how lucky I am to have this support, as there are so many people who do not have the same in their workplace, or at home. The thing is, it shouldn’t come down to ‘luck’, and being off work with a mental illness is no different to being off with a broken leg, it’s just that the pain is in a different part of the body and can’t be seen. After my walking challenge I will be turning my fundraising attentions to mental health, to try and help those not as fortunate as me so they can access the support and help they need, we need to make society more tolerant.

Cooking We all need to eat, so the practical side in me has identified cooking as another way of unwinding and relaxing my mind. It offers me the chance to use my creative side whilst still doing something that is useful for my household. This has also helped to alleviate three issues from when I wasn’t well – Far too much take away/fast food, which more often than not included wine, which all in turn had a financial impact as well. Keeping within your means and trying to eat well should not be underestimated in terms of the impact it can have on an individual’s mental health.

Time and space to myself – Being clear about your needs with those close to you This is a simple thing that I never used to do, on reflection I spent a lot of my time existing for others to the point where it made me miserable, mopey and no fun to be around. These days I am clear with myself, and those around me that sometimes I need to go for a walk, a run, read a book, go to the cinema and without fail, watch Manchester United! There is an old saying that you need to care for yourself before you can care for someone else, and I would suggest taking time out for yourself is not only important in terms of having a break, it is essential to maintaining your wellbeing.

Talking therapy Coming to the self-realisation that a lot of my symptoms of depression went all the way back to my dad passing. Talking therapy enabled me to identify the issues that went unaddressed over a period of years, and built up. I didn’t grieve properly for Dad and got back into the swing of things, that was my way of coping. I gradually became worse at dealing with conflict and stressful situations as my confidence was draining away, with my Dad not there to pick me up. Having an independent person just listen and ask me the odd question provided me with the space and time to revisit the things that broke me down over the years, and helped me gain the confidence to rebuild myself.

My final thoughts for colleagues in the student movement:

  • Take time to get to know the people you work with, as people, not just as colleagues. Understanding what makes them tick will help you to build strong relationships, and better equip you to manage them through work and personal challenges. It will help to build trust.
  • Be observant. Take the time to reflect on the mood in the office and how people are feeling. Ask them how they are. Be kind, and remember the things that enable you to be your best at work – what do they need?
  • Embrace change, it is inevitable. Staff are often characterised as continuity- but I think this is simplistic and dangerous. We work in an environment that is about achieving change, we also work in an environment with a high turnover in staff, we also work where our elected leaders change year on year across the movement. This in itself means that as a staff member you sometimes need to re-create yourself and your style and approach to ensure you are effective at supporting student officers with different beliefs and different political views. This is hard, and it is important to accept that your approach won’t always work. However, stay true to the reasons why you decided to work in the student movement in the first place.
  • Retain focus and set yourself clear goals, at work and at home. Talk about your goals, be open and honest about how others can help you achieve them, and what you can give back to others. As human beings we often need a sense of purpose, I found that setting myself clear goals over set timeframes has enabled me to regain mine.

Steve is taking on an extreme walking challenge to raise money for MacMillan by walking from Bristol to Lands End in 7 days to mark 7 years since his father’s death. You can- and should- donate here.


Twitter: @stevecoole

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