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How an open and inclusive work culture strengthens my battle with mental healthFran Holland

by Fran Holland, Deputy Fundraising Manager, Norwich

15.03.18


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How an open and inclusive work culture strengthens my battle with mental health

Fran Holland is a successful fundraiser and team leader at HOME Fundraising, who quickly progressed to become Deputy Fundraising Manager for our Norwich branch. But what makes her success all the more inspiring is that she has achieved all this while facing an inner battle with mental health.

Here, Fran (aged 29) speaks out about how her mental health impacts her work life and the need for employers to be more understanding and inclusive for those with similar conditions.

What drew you to fundraising?

To be honest, fundraising was – initially at least - an escape from the job I had before. I had worked on a shop floor and in call centres, but I really wanted to find a job where I could make a difference. I’d spent some time volunteering for Rethink and had been involved with other charities in the past, so I went online to look for jobs in the charity sector.

Then it all happened so quickly. I saw a job with HOME Fundraising, applied and was called in almost immediately for an interview. Two days later, I started my training as a fundraiser with HOME. I really loved the role and progressed quite quickly. Just a few months after joining, I was promoted to team leader and then, a year later, to Deputy Fundraising Manager, working across the fundraising teams in Norwich.

What does a typical day involve for you at HOME?

No two days are the same. Some days I’ll be training new starters, while others I’ll have one-to-one sessions with fundraisers in my team. I could be doing anything from site visits to recruiting staff and, of course, fundraising.

I get such an amazing sense of job satisfaction from the work that we do. It’s not easy and there can be a lot of rejection along the way, but I know that what I am doing really means something and that’s a great feeling.

What are the challenges?

From a fundraising perspective, it can be tough because you’re not going to get a positive response every day. That never really bothered me, because I knew I was doing something worthwhile and doing it well. I really believe deep down that there will always be someone who wants to support the charity that I’m fundraising for.

But I have also had a long-term battle with mental health and this can have huge implications for my work.

In her teenage years, Fran was housebound for several months, struck down by a virus, which led to chronic fatigue syndrome. During this time, she struggled with her mental health and to regain emotional stability. She was diagnosed as bipolar and, later, with Emotional Instability Personality Disorder.

How does your mental health affect you on a day-to-day basis?

My symptoms vary dramatically. I can have extreme mood swings; sometimes these are predominant dips or rises that might last 6 months or so, but at other times, I experience very quick swings between emotional highs and lows, along with anxiety and panic attacks. Generally, this means that I can have a hard time controlling my emotional state and I have to work hard to cope and to prevent my mental health from impacting those around me.

What impact does this have on you in the workplace and as a fundraiser?

While I’m naturally a very sociable person, some days I do feel bright and bubbly, but at other times I’m the complete opposite and find it difficult to engage with anyone. If I’m out meeting people or fundraising, it can be very difficult for different reasons.

On bad days, I can get quite nervous about approaching people or talking with them and my sense of self-worth is often very low.  At other times, I might have manic episodes, which means that I talk very fast. I’m so passionate about the charities that I work with and want to do a good job, so the real challenge for me is to consciously slow myself right down.

At other times, because the medication I take is a sedative, I can feel groggy, particularly in the mornings. My memory and concentration are affected, so it can take longer to complete tasks.

How do you cope with these symptoms?

The difficult thing to explain is that there can be very different types of bad days. I have to try and weigh up when it’s appropriate to push through and when it’s not.

I have different coping strategies and work closely with my line manager to make sure he knows how I’m feeling and when there are any major changes in my medication and so on, so that we can discuss how best to deal with it.   

Some days, depression simply gets the best of me and I have to make decisions about what is the best way to deal with it. That might mean coming into the office but knowing that I’m going to have to spend quite a bit of time in the back room alone, or it might mean that I just have to stay home and call in sick. I don’t do this lightly; I never want to let my team down. But, I’m also very conscious of the need to try to stop my mental health affecting those around me; to contain my feelings so that I don’t impact others.

And how do your colleagues respond?

The people around me at HOME have been amazing and it makes such a difference. Years ago, in a previous work life, I used to hear colleagues refer to me as ‘sick notes’. I used to try not to let it get to me, but it made it so much harder and inevitably had a negative impact on my mental state.

Here at HOME, I get plenty of support and it makes me feel looked after. I’m not seen as a person who is different, someone who has sick days or with mental health issues, but as someone who is good at my job. (And I really love this job!) I’m not defined by mental health anymore.

Why is it so different at HOME?

The whole approach - HOME’s culture - is completely different to anywhere I’ve worked before. The ethics, beliefs and philosophy are all centred around supporting us; the people that work here.

I am encouraged to be completely open about how I’m feeling; my symptoms and my state of mind. I have regular conversations with my line manager about it, going over plans and I get plenty of encouragement and help from my team. And the most important thing for me is that I’ve never once been made to feel guilty for my illness or for taking time off when I need to. (I do feel guilty, that’s just how I am, but the real difference is that I’m not made to feel that way by anyone here).

If every company was like this, so many more people would feel safe and supported in employment, regardless of any mental health issues.

Why is it important that companies understand and can deal appropriately with mental health issues?

Mental health is becoming an increasingly prominent issue, particularly among younger people. One in four people are thought to have a mental health issue each year; it’s so important that employers understand it and what that means for their workforce.

If more companies valued people based on their work rather than their mental health, then so many more people would have been given opportunities and achieved amazing things. Some companies tend to focus on all the things they think people can’t do because they might take time off, instead of thinking about their potential and what they can do.

I’ve got other friends with similar conditions and many of those feel that they have been constantly overlooked and written off because of their mental health condition. Essentially, some amazing talents are being wasted because of something completely outside of their control.

Speaking out about your mental health is a brave thing to do. What made you speak out and why do you think it’s important that people do so?

I think it’s so important to speak out and say something. I’m in a reasonably good position now and the truth is that I had never really thought I would achieve very much. This is because I’d so often been told not to expect too much because of my mental health. I know that’s what others with mental health issues are being told too. I want anyone in that position to know that they can achieve something and for companies to recognise that we all have something special to offer.

What could companies do to improve their approach to people with mental health conditions?

Companies should be focusing on what people can achieve, rather than any limitations. Don’t write off good workers without giving them a chance to shine. HOME knew about my mental health history and still gave me the opportunity. I wish everyone could have that chance.

It’s about having an open and supportive culture and ensuring everyone within the organisation engages with that philosophy. Every company has trained first aiders, but isn’t it about time we had mental health first aiders too?

I took MIND’s mental health first aid course a few years ago. At the time, it helped me more than five years’ worth of counselling had done. I wish more businesses enrolled people in this training. That would make such a difference at the level of understanding companies have around mental health issues and help people feel supported.

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