This week’s mental health awareness events were timely. Working dads can speak to each other, and speak up for change
All of which is why this week’s focus on mental health is important.
It’s been children’s mental health week, and never has that been better timed. I speak to dads of young children and think they’ve got it bad. Toddlers and those just starting to learn to read and write surely require the most attention while schools and some childcare settings remain closed. Yet I’m aware there are different and perhaps equally tricky challenges in parenting older kids during a pandemic.
Mine are old enough to self start when it comes to schooling. And yet the longer this goes on the bigger a proportion of their childhood it is stealing from them. My daughter is content in her room FaceTiming friends and she’s certainly dodging the worst aspects of secondary school playground politics. But she ought to be in TK Maxx of a weekend. And you can’t help but fear for the long term impact all this is having. How will she feel about meeting up with friends, sharing a classroom, visiting the shops after this is over? (On the last of those points I’m fairly confident the answer is: ‘She’ll be fine with it’. It’ll take more than a global pandemic to keep a teenage girl out of Claire’s Accessories.)
But those worries of mine draw attention to the impact on me and all those working dads like me.
So the key recommendation in Han Son Lee’s mental health tips that we published this week is the one about looking after your own mental health.
Never has the airline analogy been more pertinent – in an emergency adults must put on their own oxygen mask before helping anyone else with theirs. You’re no help to anyone, including your family, if you can’t breathe.
So Time to Talk Day also seemed timely. Men, dads, are not known for opening up. But that’s not because we can’t or don’t. Tom Chapman, founder of the Lions Barber Collective that seeks to bring an element of the therapist’s couch to the barbers chair, had some good advice around reaching out but also listening. If a fellow dad suggests they need help it’s OK not to know how to respond. Tom’s tips were enlightening. As ever, honesty is the best policy: admit you’re not sure what to say or do. But, crucially, most of the time just listening is enough.
And be aware you’re not alone. I took part in an Acas event last week about mental health in the workplace. My fellow speakers revealed some surprising, perhaps even shocking, stats. 17.9 million working days were lost to work related stress, depression or anxiety in 2019/20. That’s five million more than the previous year.
The Office for National Statistics reckons 19% of adults have experienced depression in the last 12 months, up from a pre-pandemic figure of 10%.
As I said in my speech to the Acas event, “Employers have to recognise that for many people work is a cause of stress.”
But there’s a second part to that. “If we recognise that work can be a cause of stress then we have to accept the challenge of ensuring that work is not a cause of stress.”
My solution to that? You may not be surprised to learn that it involved more paternity leave and flexible working.
Because both measures will improve mental health. Men who are more involved with their families report better mental health. People who work flexibly report less stress.
Parenthood brings with it worries and guilt, they go with the territory. Let’s face it, if there was no lockdown and my teenage daughter was actually spending her time in TK Maxx I’d be worried who she was with and whether they were shoplifting (not because she’s bad but because when I was at school shoplifting seemed to be the teenage girl’s pastime of choice).
So when it comes to that part of the work life balance talking to other dads is undoubtedly wise counsel. Reading up on how we can help our kids mental health is a good use of our time.
But action comes into the equation when it comes to work. We can ask for more paternity leave, demand flexible working, support others that speak up and all benefit from better policies that will bring mental health advantages.
These are tricky times. We all need to give ourselves a break. Look out for each other. But let’s not lose sight of the longer term goals. When we’ve the strength again and the capacity to move forward it’ll be easier if we know the direction we want to travel.