Princes launches Mental Health Awareness campaign

Today, as part of the ‘Our Health & Wellbeing’ pillar of our People Excellence Strategy, we launch our Mental Health Awareness initiative, a key part of our commitment to Health and Wellbeing across the business. Here, our Chief People Officer Joe Dent, 49, explains why it is so important to him.

Most people are surprised when I tell them that I suffer with anxiety. Now, I wouldn’t say it is something that I tell everyone I meet, but over the course of recent years I have shared this more readily with colleagues.

As Chief People Officer for Princes, I’m expected to be able to stand up in a room full of people and speak confidently. But, for me, it can be a traumatic experience and even trigger a panic attack.

I know when it started but for many years didn’t fully understand why – even when I did understand it more, it didn’t necessarily always help.

About 18 years ago, a significant change in my personal circumstances led to me having to sell my house and rent a flat near where I worked in Manchester. I christened the flat ‘The Cell’ because it wasn’t in the nicest area and so I wasn’t that inclined to venture out which led to a feeling of imprisonment almost.

For many months I bottled up all the stress caused by what had happened and I suppose I tried to hide it all away but knowing what I know now, I was depressed at the time, but I just didn’t realise it or want to admit it.

I thought I was coping until I was asked to give a leaving speech for a member of my team – something I had done numerous times before. There were about 50 people in the room waiting to hear it. I was sitting in my office preparing and suddenly I felt that I couldn’t breathe. My heart was racing, I felt lightheaded and sweaty, my breathing was all over the place and I felt out of control. I’d never experienced anything like it before and I was scared.

I stuck my head out of the window to get some air, but it made no difference.

You might not know but Barry McDonnell (now Princes’ Chief Operations Officer) and I were working together back then, and I desperately called him for help. Barry called the nurse, Soo, who took me outside to calm me down and explained that she thought I was having a panic attack.  Me being me, once it had passed, I buried my head in the sand and thought nothing more of it.

Shortly after I started working for Princes, the same thing happened again and this time it was during a meeting. On this occasion it happened while I was standing up in front of a room full of people, no warning just a full-blown panic attack in front of everyone.

This obviously brought right back to me the previous episode and I just couldn’t understand what was wrong with me or why it was happening.  For someone who had always felt reasonably confident and who had done public speaking before, this was a real shock, and I just couldn’t explain or rationalise what was going on.  I punished myself badly and felt that I was weak and why could I not just stop the thoughts that were now going through my head.  The whole thing started to make me feel really depressed. It got to the stage where I tried to avoid situations or at times just didn’t want to go to work in case, I found myself in a situation that I couldn’t trust myself to mentally handle.

Once or twice, I don’t mind admitting that I got into a very dark place in my mind at that time and questioned whether it would be easier if I wasn’t here.  But still I didn’t face up to what was happening and continued to battle internally with myself.

I wouldn’t sleep for days if I had a big event or meeting coming up – making everything feel a hundred times worse – and would endlessly catastrophise it in my head. I’d beat myself up with thoughts of looking stupid, losing control, and having another panic attack in front of a room of people who knew me.

After finally realising that I needed some help, I saw a consultant at The Priory who diagnosed me with a form of social anxiety and said they were seeing it a lot more in young men today.

I was prescribed medication – I’m still on it – and was referred for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a talking therapy which can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave.

I have also tried various other things. I used humour to try and brush it off and breathing and distraction techniques when that didn’t work.

I’ve tried hypnotherapy and meditation and every evening take a strong dose of CBD oil to help me sleep and ease the symptoms of anxiety.

I also find exercise really helps.  I lift weights, do an hour of mixed martial arts training every week and, if I’m feeling nervous about a stressful situation, I’ll take the dog for a walk if I am at home or try and get some fresh air when I am in the office to distract myself.

The support of my wife, Kelly, has been invaluable.

But after undergoing some further counselling 3 or 4 years ago, I had a positive breakthrough in my thinking on this and did probably one of the best things I could have done and maybe should have done earlier, that was to tell people at work.

It was a change in approach recommended to me to help remove the stigma and pressure I was putting on myself by making it known – that way it wasn’t a secret anymore with the theory being that if people knew then there was no need to worry about judgement.

In a Princes board meeting, in front of all my fellow directors, I was about to present but before I did, I said I had something I needed to tell them.

I explained my story and social anxiety diagnosis and the mental anguish I’d go through, was going through at that very moment, when I didn’t feel in control of a situation, when there was a build up to an event I had to speak at or if I was suddenly put on the spot.

I explained that one in three people suffer with some form of mental health issue and 20 per cent have been diagnosed with a medical issue in the UK – and everyone’s triggers are different.  I said I hoped that as well as helping me deal with my issues as a company we needed to face this growing challenge and being more open about these things may even help some of them if they had any issues and the rest of our colleagues who may also be suffering with their mental health or in any other way.

The board did something I didn’t expect them to do. They gave me a round of applause and one of them even gave me a hug for finding the courage to tell them.

Some of my colleagues, who I had worked with for several years, told me I was the last person they expected to talk in this way and that I always seemed so confident which goes to show we should never judge a book by its cover.

Talking about my mental health to my colleagues has made a huge difference to me and it has helped me to come to terms with the fact that my anxiety is going to be with me forever. It’s not a weakness, I don’t have a black mark against me and people in Princes really do care.

Today, if I’ve got a big presentation or meeting coming up, I still have anxiety about it and I must deal with the consequences of that. Sometimes it even happens unexpectedly when I think I feel fine. It’s a continual maintenance job. But I know I’ve got great support behind me.

I would never have contemplated sharing my personal battle in my early years with the company – the culture we had at that time would have left me fearing judgement and that it would have been seen as a weakness and limit my career with the business.

But it shows how we have tried to evolve in recent years to make Princes a company that values its people and is supportive of them that I felt able to share and open up about issues like my own mental health.

I am passionate about this and hope the work that we have been doing with People Excellence and the “Our Princes – Our People” philosophy and specifically with the Our Health & Wellbeing campaign will help other colleagues who might be suffering to understand that the company does care that you can get through it, and it shouldn’t and won’t hold you back.

I believe the ultimate test of what we are trying to achieve is to create a business where we are one team, and we all care and look out for each other and that we’ve got each other’s backs.

You can hear Joe talking about his personal battle with anxiety, his coping strategies and the support he has received from Princes in our latest film. Click here.