I recently shared a personal experience story at an Institute of Managers and Leaders [IML] event, discussing mental health issues in workplaces.
My point in sharing this more broadly, is firstly to emphasise the importance of being self-aware of your own stress levels. Secondly, when leaders share their own real stories with powerful lessons learned, it can open the doors to a safe environment where meaningful conversations about mental health issues and impacts can be had. I hope it does that.
Stress can affect anyone. If she can, so can I.
The year was 2012. My 10th year in public sector management roles; year five as Regional Manager of Central Queensland for a State Government department. Central Queensland region is the size of the entire state of Victoria – Australia. I regularly spent three out of four weeks a month, travelling [driving] between four regional offices, to support team members and attend stakeholder meetings.
2012 was always going to be a tough year. Our department knew 2012-13 budget cuts were inevitable; coming off the back of the GFC, 2011 Queensland natural disasters, and - it was a state election year.
As a pro-active measure, I’d spent three months developing ‘Project ROAR – Review, Restructure, Re-align’ plan, [mostly evening hours] to mitigate the impact of a pending slashed budget. We had already implemented some bold moves towards centralizing our administration support to one regional location, when the ‘Newman Effect’ descended on us like a dark cloud.
The newly elected LNP government, led by Campbell Newman declared their intentions to slash 20% of public sector full-time equivalent [FTE] jobs. They were not interested in budget saving plans or more efficient restructures; it was just an FTE numbers game. Politically driven point scoring; not program values or customer service driven.
Worst still was the ‘not negotiable’ approach. Communication with regional management ceased. All travel budgets from regions to Brisbane head shed was immediately cut. I remember feeling helpless and frustrated at being isolated from the decision making, and not being able to advocate for my team.
True to personal form, ‘can’t’ is not something I accept readily on face value. I’m known as someone who finds another way around things, to make stuff happen; side-stepping the blockages. So I flew to Brisbane [paid my own way] and met with the A/Deputy Director General; presenting our Central Queensland Project ROAR plan.
But, to no avail. A week later, I was screaming down the phone to head shed from my regional corner office with the door closed, when my District Manager knocked and came in and said:
“Jilinda, I’m worried about you … the staff can all hear you … WH&S staff down the hallway can all hear you … this is not like you at all … you need to go home and take a break”.
So, I did that; went home early. Next day, I made an appointment to see the Employee Support Services psychologist. I’d been once before; a few weeks earlier when I was angry about my Director taking leave while all this crap was going down, as it felt like I had the entire regional staff’s future on my shoulders.
Appointment time came; I raced out of the building already 5 minutes late due to a phone call. I jumped in the car, drove the 2 blocks, and then drove up and down the correct street for about 10 minutes. I’d been there before, but today – I just couldn’t find the place! Pulling over into Officeworks car park, I rang the psychologist. She said:
“Where are you? … I want you to get out of the car, lock it, leave it there, then walk down half a block on the same side of the street, we are 4 buildings down.”
When I got there, she immediately made an appointment for me to see my doctor, recommending I take 4 weeks off.
“What? Not me. My team need me. I’ll take a few days and I’ll be fine”.
She replied: “Do you realise that while you were driving up and down the street for 10 minutes, you went through 3-4 sets of lights, several times. I’ll bet you didn’t notice if they were red, orange or green, or recall whether you stopped at any of them? … your mind needs to rest and clear the fog”.
She enquired if I had any sick leave available? I laughed. I’d averaged one day sick leave per year for the 10 years in public sector employ. I didn’t believe in taking a ‘mental health day’ … and I was rarely ‘sick enough’ to take a day off. Hmmm, so I thought.
Short version ending ... Honestly, I don’t know where the first month off went. It was like a blur, like slowly coming out of a thick fog. I had to wait until it lifted enough to see a clear way forward.
Six weeks later, I resigned. Not because I had to; lots of colleagues around the state tried to talk me out of it. But, the fog had cleared, and I knew I could not work for that regime. I knew I would never play the game of ‘puppetry of the political penis’. My purpose was much deeper than a number scoring game.
You see … I know what drives and motivates me – it’s not money or position or public sector ‘job for life’ security. I was brought into the sector 10 years earlier to drive change. I need to be making a positive difference and leading with a people development focus. When that’s not there; it’s a no brainer decision [at least, it is when the fog’s lifted].
It was time for the next chapter.
There were two things I wanted to do before I left: to ensure my two District Managers felt supported to step up and continue on, and; to share my mental health story [learnings] with every team member. So, I went back for 6 weeks, reduced hours to 3 days per week, to mentor and help others through the inevitable changes, until my chosen last day.
Realising I had a mental health issue was a shock for me, a shock for my team members, and a lesson for all of us. Stress can take over and affect anyone, but the lessons learned are invaluable.
I am a stronger, mentally healthier person because of this experience. I’m a better leader because I have first-had knowledge of what it feels like when you are close to breaking point, and I know the signs. I now believe in the importance of living a mentally healthy lifestyle and I know how to fuel my resilience levels.
By far, the best thing I did after that was to focus on building my self-awareness, strengthening my inner core values, emotional intelligence levels, and clear purpose. I spent the year that followed studying; gaining several coaching, emotional intelligence, and human behavioural science accreditations, with deliberate intention to increase my skills in mentoring and helping others.
Now - over five years on, as an experienced coach and mentor to emerging and current leaders, I know that my unwavering purpose and mission as founder and Director of Vital Leaders, comes from two core drivers:
- My passion for developing real leaders – dynamic, authentic, genuine, engaging, people-focused leaders
- My frustration with the current status quo – too many seat-warmers, too many focused on self-preservation, not enough real leaders
I totally believe that out of knock downs and crisis fog, comes great opportunity. Sometimes you just need to take the time to sit with it and allow the fog to lift.
Crap happens anywhere … Stress affects anyone … Sharing the lessons learned, helps everyone.
Written by Jilinda Lee - recognised leadership coach and mentor for government sector leaders and managers, the Institute of Leaders and Managers, and champion partner of the Lean In global movement – encouraging and enabling more women to step up into lead roles.
Founder and Managing Director of Vital Leaders, Jilinda is a passionate presenter, thought-leading commentator, and writer on all things leadership related. Vital Leaders mission is to develop more dynamic, emotionally intelligent leaders. All Vital Leaders programs have embedded emotional intelligence development in their core frameworks.