It’s January. The excess, the parties, the catching up with family and friends over a bite to eat or a few drinks (or both!) is done for now and many of us find ourselves in the position where we have a few pounds to lose and possibly a few bad habits as well. You may even be attempting ‘dry’ January, Veganuary or thinking about signing up for gym membership or training for a future physical challenge – everywhere we look there are advertisements for all of the new starts we should be giving ourselves. January 2020 not only brings a new year but also a new decade – it seems almost unbelievable to me that the Millennium was now 20 years ago – so it seems as good a time as any to rethink our goals, make new plans and try to make and stick to our resolutions.
Except that January is also dark, cold, wet and for those in the funeral profession usually very busy, which makes adopting a healthier way of living or creating new habits doubly difficult. This is why it is important more than ever to keep it simple, keep it achievable and not beat ourselves up over the inevitable slips and trips that the next couple of months may bring. It often helps to write down our goals and then plan to meet them over the whole year, rather than going all out to try to lose weight/stop drinking/deal with stress better/mend relationships or find new ones/change jobs or all of the other things we decide to try to do as soon as possible in the first few weeks of the year – before realising that most of these things can’t be done overnight and we give up completely. A small change each month over twelve months can make a big difference; one massive blow out by mid-January, followed by a sense of disappointment for the rest of the year does none of us any good.
You may have heard towards the end of last year about the ambulance service which experienced the suicide of three of its staff members within a fortnight. While there seems to have been a pre-existing organisational culture that contributed to these untimely deaths, none of us in this profession will have been untouched by suicide in the past couple of years, yet despite the work undertaken in raising awareness of suicide and in implementing prevention strategies, the problem still remains as bad as ever, if not worse. A toxic combination of work and life stress can take anyone to the edge of their tolerance and combined with dark days and bad weather, long working hours and the pressure we put on ourselves at this time of year, we should all be more mindful to look out for each other and ourselves. Take the time to ask your colleagues “are you OK?” and be prepared to listen, without judgment, to the answer. We don’t need to be able to fix everything, but being there for each other can go an awful long way to making problems more bearable.
Research shows us that first responders are twice as likely to suffer from a mental health problem that is related to their work that the general public; indeed fire service staff taking long term mental health leave has increased by 30% in the last six years. It’s my opinion that while our roles are very different, people in the funeral profession have almost as stressful jobs as the first responders they often follow – they may not be first at the scene of an incident or involved in the emergency response, but often the funeral director is on the scene very quickly afterwards. That and the inherently challenging nature of the job, whether dealing with a particularly difficult death, a heavy workload that doesn’t relent when everyone else takes holiday time, long hours and regular out-of-hours callouts can all add to a drip effect that can trigger or aggravate a serious mental health problem.
New research also suggests that it’s men who are more mentally affected by their work, with data from Mind highlighting that one in three men attribute poor mental health to their job, while one in five women say the same. With the funeral profession still heavily male-dominated (times are changing, but not quickly), this is of concern. The research also showed that men struggling with their mental health still don’t feel comfortable speaking up and asking for help, especially in the workplace. In 2018 only one in three men (out of 15,000 surveyed) said they felt the culture in their workplace makes it possible to speak openly about mental health, and the same percentage have taken time off for mental health-related reasons. It might not be that workplaces are less mentally friendly to men, but that men are less likely to ask for help when they need it, take time off when necessary, or get the support that could make a huge difference.
So this new decade, make a small commitment. Look up your workplace employee support service and see what they offer to anyone who is struggling. If you don’t have one, ask why. Resolve to find ways of supporting your colleagues – it’s often as simple as just checking in with each other and encouraging people to be honest with their answers, whenever they can. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Celebrate the small improvements that you can make and don’t worry if you don’t smash your goals – or even try to. Take one day at a time.
A small change can easily be as significant as a huge one. In 2020, you can be that change.
Catherine Betley, Managing Director of Professional Help Limited.