Friday, 1 June 2018

Take or break

We’ve just had a Bank Holiday long weekend in the UK and hence I had time on Monday morning to have a lengthy chat with Tian Sern Oon – one of the winners of this year’s Queen’s Young Leaders award. After a very difficult childhood, Tian Sern has founded a business in Singapore to help support people suffering from poor mental health and to raise awareness of the issues related to mental well-being and the benefits of diversity, with a view to reducing the stigma associated with mental illness. 

He does not want anyone to suffer as he did (he grew up with a schizophrenic mother and succumbed to depression himself after his father lost his retail job during the global economic downturn). As you can imagine, he is a brave and inspirational young man.

There must be something in the air, across the world in general, as one of the other young people whom I am mentoring for the programme, Hauwa Ojeifo, is also trying to tackle the stigma of mental health in her country and region – she is based in Nigeria and she and I had a call early on Monday evening before I went to a meeting with fellow governors of my local NHS Foundation Trust (where the topic of mental health was also raised). It is humbling seeing what both of these amazing young award winners are doing to make the world a better place for fellow sufferer, those around them and the wider community. I am sure that I will be providing further updates on here about them and their progress over the next few months.

Mental Health Awareness Week occurs in May in the UK.  It therefore seems apt for me to write a piece about health and well being, and, given that I have just enjoyed a Bank Holiday break, I am going to focus on the value of taking some time off. A few years ago, when I worked for a large global organisation headquartered in the U.S.A., I first became aware of the difference in the approach to work absences and holidays around the globe – on paper my American colleagues had many fewer days’ vacation than those of us based in Britain, Australia or indeed in most countries. It should be noted that there is no statutory right to paid vacation in the U.S.A., nor is there a requirement on a private company to provide paid Public Holidays, although the majority of employers do. However, unlike the rest of us, the American based employees had a specified number of days to take as sick days each year and this was included within their contracts. It seemed odd to me to require people to take time off “ill” (even when they were not) – as that is how colleagues treated it – it was seen as a right to a few days off with no questions asked and, if all their days had not been utilised, there was a rush to do so before the end of each year.

Acknowledging that sickness is an issue at work is not a modern concept. In 1500 BC at least some of the workers who built tombs for the Egyptian pharaohs received paid sick leave and state supported health care

In the Bible, in chapter 13 of the Book of Leviticus, it is suggested that a seven-day period of isolation should occur for individuals infected with a skin condition. In Victorian times all policemen in England and Wales were offered free medical care, sick leave and sick pay (provided that they became unfit for service in the execution of duty) and, as from 1839, the Metropolitan Police provided pensions to officers with more than 15 years’ service who, after a medical examination, were deemed to be no longer fit for police service. It is interesting that just this week Uber has announced that it will give its European drivers access to medical cover and compensation for work-related injuries – it may be cynical of me to note that Uber’s appeal hearing in September, which will determine whether it can operate in the UK, will pivot on whether the company has become a conscientious business (it’s licence was withdrawn on grounds of “public safety and security implications”). Uber needs to demonstrate that is has changed its ways and is fit to operate – back in 2016 it denied workers’ rights to holidays, but this decision was overruled. Uber may have been short-sighted in more ways than one – but it is not alone. Many other organisations still fail to appreciate the value that having a holiday or period of rest from work can have on a worker.

The word “holiday” comes from “holy day” and from medieval times onwards they were days on which everyone, regardless of background, could rest. Once the industrial revolution had occurred, it became common for factories to have a week’s closure, during which period machinery was repaired. This holiday (known as the Wakes Week in northern England) was a time when typically a different town closed every week over the period from June to September and this became the start of what many of us now think of as having a holiday. An agreement for twelve days’ annual leave was introduced in 1907 and this increased to fifteen in 1915. Workers would scrimp and save to escape from their place of work, often going to the seaside. Holidays were traditionally unpaid – this made life very hard for low paid workers. In the UK paid holiday rights were finally introduced via the Holidays With Pay Act 1938, following a 20-year campaign for paid leisure time.

It has been proved that taking a break boosts productivity – in mid 1920s Henry Ford reduced his workers’ hours from six days to five and 48-hour weeks to 40 – and, as he anticipated, this boosted productivity. However, recent research shows that many workers today are not using their holiday entitlement. In the British Airways commissioned research it was discovered that in 2017 one third of British workers did not use their full holiday entitlement (relinquishing on average 4 days of paid leave). We have quite a significant problem in the global workforce now, namely “presenteeism” (where individuals come to work but, usually because of mental of physical health issues, they are unproductive despite being physically in the workplace). I see a close link between presenteeism and mental health (and in particular stress). It used to be said that the reason people suffered from stress was because their body kept repeatedly releasing hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin in response to a perceived threat – the “Fight or Flight” response – but this definition has now been adapted to include the aspect of “Freeze” where an individual is incapable of doing anything. This is an observed aspect of presenteeism.

Humans need rest, and in particular we need sleep – 15 hours’ sleep deprivation impacts responses as much as swiftly downing 2 pints of beer. Sleep is vital – admittedly we all have slightly different sleeping patterns and needs, but for most adults fewer than eight hours over a protracted period is harmful (if you sleep fewer than 6 or more than 11 hours on a consistent basis you should perhaps seek medical advice, as both are probably causes for concern). However, if you are a parent, don’t apply this rule to your children. There is medical evidence that proves that as teenagers our sleep patterns change – making adolescents naturally more nocturnal than adults, with their melatonin being released as late as 1.00am as opposed to the more conventional time of 10.00pm, and their being in need of a lie-in as a result. Melatonin helps us feel sleepy. One of the reasons why many of us have trouble sleeping is due to our use of gadgets such as smartphones and screens late at night. Many tech devices emit blue light and this inhibits our natural production of melatonin. So, if you want to help yourself sleep better read a traditional rather than an e-book before bed.

If you are at work and struggling either through feeling drowsy or because of the pressure you find yourself under, it is unlikely that you can escape for a nap or enjoy an unplanned holiday, however, there is no reason why you cannot take care of yourself. Get up and have a wander – it’s good for you and you will perform better afterwards. Going for a walk in a place where there are plants and trees is proven to be more restorative than having an urban ramble. Earlier this week, I took a member of my team for a walk during our one-to-one, rather than sitting and just talking in a room. We went to the Postman’s Park – a relatively unknown site in the City of London.  It is a surprisingly moving venue due to an unusual memorial erected by the painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts in honour of Heroic Self Sacrifice

It was built in honour of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. The memorial commemorates normal citizens who courageously gave their lives to save others. I love the fact their acts will now not be forgotten.  I also find visiting the memorial strangely therapeutic - it reminds me that my life is easy in comparison to so many others and that there are things that I, un-heroic as I am, can do to take better care of myself. You owe it to yourself and those you care about you to take care. Don’t be ashamed of wanting to take a break. Better having a break than becoming broken.

Photo by Bing Wright