Special Report: Travel Weekly Mental Health Matters

Welcome to the first in Travel Weekly’s Mental Health Matters series, focusing on the issues affecting mental health in the workplace and what companies can do to support employees

A problem shared is a problem halved. We all know the famous saying, and when it comes to mental health problems, acting on this statement can be the first step on the road to recovery.

The topic of mental health has become more high-profile in recent years, as people, companies and institutions recognise the value of taking care of people’s mental health and wellbeing.

More and more well-known figures have shared their personal experiences of mental health in the hope it will help to eliminate the stigma and encourage others to speak up about their stories, and Travel Weekly’s Mental Health Matters series is designed to help travel firms improve their understanding and approach to this important subject.

In the coming months, we will be discussing some of the biggest issues surrounding mental health in the travel industry, from looking after employees’ mental health to working with customers with mental health problems looking to travel.

Travel Weekly will also be hosting a Business Breakfast event and a top-level industry round-table to further discuss some of the issues surrounding mental health in the travel workplace, and will hear from a range of people in the industry about their experiences.

Mental health ‘needs to top the business agenda’

Chris O’Sullivan, from the Mental Health Foundation, speaks to Natalie Marsh about the work of the organisation and mental health in the travel workplace


Tell us about the Mental Health Foundation and its approach
I look after both workplace mental health and corporate partnerships and corporate engagement work in the foundation. We are a UK-wide mental health charity and we exist to address the risk factors for mental health problems, so our focus is on prevention. The idea is that only by preventing the impact mental health problems can have will we be able to solve the challenges we face. This is our 70th anniversary as a charity; we were founded in 1949 to address the disparity between research in physical health and mental health. Then, over the last 20 to 25 years, we started to put a lot more research into practice.

Are people talking about mental health?
We’ve done quite well over the last few years to raise awareness that one in four people will develop a mental health problem, but anything that is ‘one in X’ gives us a chance to think ‘that’s not going to be us’. The truth is, about one in six UK adults are experiencing the symptoms of a mental health problem at any given time. People are talking more about mental health, and they are, I think, acknowledging their own mental health, whether they are talking about it or not. When we asked people, “Have you at some point had a mental health problem?”, 65% said yes. We asked people, “Have you been stressed to the point of being overwhelmed or unable to cope?”, 72% said yes. That blows out of the water the idea that it is other people, that it’s ‘one in X’.

We’ve done research on people’s experiences of mental health problems in the workplace, and we know that only half of people who have a mental health problem disclose it to their employer. We do need to do more about having conversations.

“It’s something that is extremely important and the more we recognise that fluctuations in our mental health are as much a part of the human condition as fluctuations in our physical health, the better we will be.

What improvements can be implemented in the workplace?
Our work is about trying to get people to recognise the value of integrating mental health initiatives in the business at an early stage. A few years ago, we ran an economic analysis, and we know that the cost to the economy of mental health problems is high and rising. It costs about £30 billion a year. But if you look at the value added by the people working with mental health problems, that is massively higher, about £226 billion a year, which is about 12% of GDP.

People are in the workplace dealing with stuff on a daily basis and if all the people who were affected by mental health problems personally or professionally were suddenly not able to work, the impact on the economy would be incredible.

Our argument is that mental health needs to be on top of the business agenda, because promoting and protecting the mental health of your people is an important thing to do for business success.

What can be done in companies where employees work out of the office?
That’s the territory we now need to be in, and one we’re moving into in the mental health sector. We need to think about non-traditional work environments and travel is a really interesting one. We’re starting to see organisations with very dispersed workforces look at mental health. We know that the manager relationship is critical to mental health at work, but if your team is all over the world, that’s a difficult thing to do. There are some small practical steps you can take; for example, ensuring you have the ability to do video conferencing rather than phone conferencing or email can be very helpful. There’s an element we need to look at around shift work and unusual hours, which definitely applies to the travel trade.

If you were a great manager and you had a member of staff in your office who had a mental health problem, you’d probably work with them on a self-management plan. You’d ask, “How will I know if things aren’t going well? What do you need? And what kind of adjustments can we make?” However, if you’re managing someone in another country, there’s an extra dimension in terms of what the local support is like. What do we need to do to help you?

How does taking good care of mental health in the travel workplace affect how well people do their jobs?
Increased mental health awareness is something that benefits people who are in customer-facing roles. The ability to be switched on to something that you probably knew was there, but you didn’t necessarily see, is a big thing. If somebody comes in looking for a holiday, and they say: “My son has some health problems, we want to find a place he can go.” If you can say: “As a company, we take mental health seriously and I know it can be a challenge for health insurance, so let me see if I can find some specialist travel insurers…”, that is going to increase the goodwill that that client’s family has for your business. Sometimes taking a client focus and a business focus enables firms to look at their own practice as well.

How can travelling, for work and for holiday, affect mental health?
Undoubtedly, travel can be really helpful for people. Taking a break and having new experiences, doing things you’re good at and broadening your horizons are all things that could help us with our mental health. But also, doing it can be quite stressful. We need to recognise, personally and logistically, that travel has an impact on our mental health. And when we travel for work, our employers don’t always give us enough time to recover before we’re expected to perform.

What advice would you give employers who want to focus on mental health?
One of the biggest challenges that people face with mental health is not doing something because they’re not sure what the right thing to do is. Starting a journey with authenticity and sincerity is the best thing that people can do. And then engage people at all levels in all parts of the business, ask people what they want, and talk to people at work about what you’re planning.

If you, or someone you know, has been affected by a mental health issue and you need further help and support, contact the Samaritans free of charge on 116 123.

My story – Kane Pirie, managing director of VIVID Travel

In 2001, I decided I’d had enough. I’d been working like a dog for KPMG and suddenly thought ‘I don’t want to do this any more’. I handed over a large box of files to a friend and colleague to take into the London office, called my boss and took a train to Manchester. At the time, it felt like a dream, like the end of my career, the end of at least one iteration of myself.

I didn’t feel too good and found myself talking to a doctor. Apparently, I was depressed, which meant nothing to me at the time. I was given one month’s supply of fluoxetine (Prozac) and bundled out of the door. After a few days in Manchester, I headed back to Frankfurt, armed with a couple of books on depression that I found incredibly bleak. The whole meltdown had crept up on me over the years so slowly that I hadn’t even noticed, as there were always multiple issues in play.

Firstly, I did not know how to look after myself. I was not really exercising; I was smoking and I relaxed by drinking at the weekend. Secondly, in the week, I sometimes flew to more than one city a day and often worked through the night. I enjoyed my job at the time, but in hindsight, I was overdoing it. I was squeezed out of my own life. Thirdly, I was between families – no longer in my old family and ahead of my new family. Families are a great stabiliser; daddies don’t cry. Fourthly, I was living in a country where I did not speak the lingo. Everything was harder. Even trying to post a letter could become an ordeal and chip away at your self-confidence.

I am not sure I would have coped knowing from the outset, but I was actually at the start of a personal war. From 2001 to 2006, I had five years in a fairly grim loop: falling into and fighting out of depression.

Eventually, I learnt the tablets were at best a double-edged sword. I moved back to the UK, found work I enjoyed at Travel Republic in the much more fun and empathetic industry of travel, had years of counselling, stopped smoking and got physically fit, which is underrated as a mood lifter. Paul [Furner] and Chris [Waite] were good mates and business partners at Travel Republic and tolerated my wayward nature as I slowly sorted myself out. While it was painful at the time, I would not change anything about it. After ‘sorting myself out’ I became a much happier person, forward-looking and optimistic.

I am not really embarrassed about having had mental health problems. These days I consider myself unusually resilient and that is because of, and not in spite of, some of the issues I have navigated.

More people should be open about their own issues. That will accelerate the day in which the last vestiges of the stigma fade away. I look forward to that.

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