At the age of 24 Jason Anker MBE fell off a ladder at work and was left paralysed and in a wheelchair.
He is now a mentor, author and speaker who talks about wellbeing, health, safety and resilience, as well as co-founding the business consultancy Anker & Marsh. He says his level of wellbeing now is better than it’s ever been.
We caught up with him to tell us his story of transformation and why it’s made him so passionate about ensuring that wellbeing is considered within Health & Safety at work, especially in workplaces like a construction site, where he had his accident.
Can you tell us what happened?
Yes. It was January 3, 1993, and I was 24 years old. It was a cold, foggy, icy day and at the end of my shift.
At the time, I was working as a roofing labourer on a construction site but I wasn’t a roofer by trade. It was a recession and I’d been made redundant so had to do work I didn’t really want to do. It’s only recently we’ve come to understand the impact of my mental health at that time on the choice I made that day, to go up that ladder and then fall 10 feet to the ground.
Initially I was told I would get the sensations back in my legs but then, after a CT scan, I was told I’d never walk again. Then I spent months in a spinal unit where I basically learnt how to live in a wheelchair. The day after I got discharged from hospital my wife walked out on me with our two children who were three and five months.
As you can imagine, it was absolutely devastating. In a six month period I had lost my legs, my dignity and my marriage.
Looking back now it’s obvious to see my mental health was suffering after the accident but, being a young lad, I didn’t feel I could speak up to complete strangers about what I was going through. So I started taking anti-depressants and started to abuse alcohol to block out the pain. Unfortunately it progressed from alcohol to illegal and recreational drugs as well as a way to escape.
You said it’s only recently that you’ve come to understand the impact of your mental health on your accident. Can you say more about that?
Yeah. On the day of my accident I actually knew what I was doing was unsafe. So, I stopped and thought about it, realised it was unsafe, but I still did it. I’ve always wondered why I didn’t speak up.
Maybe it was peer pressure and the fear of speaking up. Or maybe it was the rush to the end of the shift. But, actually, what I realise now is that it was predominantly down to my mental state that the accident happened: I’d got to a place where I just didn’t care.
When it came to making that critical decision, I was in such a low place that I couldn’t be bothered to raise a concern. At the time, outside of work, my marriage was failing, I was doing a job I didn’t want to do and I was drinking heavily. So when it came to making that critical safety decision I thought I’d just ‘get it done’.
You’ve coined a phrase for how you were feeling now that you work in the Health & Safety arena – can you tell me about that?
Yes. Myself and my business partner Tim who I run Anker & Marsh with have coined a phrase for it – I was ‘fatalistically intolerant of situation, organisational and social stressors’. Or, FI for short. Since I’ve been using that term ‘F-it’ it’s really resonated with people.
How has your accident changed the way you think about Health & Safety at work?
It’s more than just about safety. We need to understand that when people make mistakes at work we often look for a broken rule, or a broken procedure, but we also need to look for a broken person. My mental health was the main cause of my accident without a doubt.
Another safety rule or another safety procedure may have prevented me from having my accident. But I truly believe the only thing that would have prevented me from doing anything unsafe that day was if someone had asked me if I was OK.
Companies have to do more around mental health. It’s not a tick box exercise or a case of training up some mental health first aiders. It’s about creating workplaces where people feel valued and part of the team and they enjoy coming to work.
Tell me more about what you think should happen in this scenario at work?
Language is very important. We’re all very guilty of saying we’re ‘fine’ no matter what’s going on in our lives.
We’re suggesting the use of the ‘F-It’ score. We’ve found if you ask people what their F-It score is, most people drop their defences.
It’s about making that conversation just a normal conversation, not a mental health conversation. We should be very open today about how we’re feeling and I personally don’t think it needs to be a ‘special’ conversation. I think it should be a normal follow on from ‘how was your weekend? Did you see the football?’ to ‘how are you doing today?’.
How can we destigmatise this conversation around mental health, particularly in industries like construction which are male dominated and workers might find it difficult to talk about feelings at work?
What I’ve tried to encourage is the more senior people, or the more vocal people in a group, share their stories. It’s really encouraging, then, to see how quickly people drop their guard and start opening up about how they’re feeling.
What about educating workers about the link between mental health and safety?
That’s huge. This link is blatantly obvious to me but nobody speaks about it. Pre-pandemic companies used to ask me just to talk about safety because they had mental health covered via their mental health first aiders. One of the positives of the pandemic is that mental health and wellbeing are now in the arena and companies are finally linking the two. Companies need to take a holistic approach to health safety and wellbeing. That’s why we believe we should be saying ‘Wellbeing Health and Safety’.
It’s very obvious how mental health would affect safety in something like construction or working in a power station – but do you think this link between mental health and safety has wider implications for business in general?
Absolutely. Level of wellbeing affects everyone’s decision making.
You’ve used the word ‘awakening’ before. Would you say that an awakening is happening in health and wellbeing on this issue?
Absolutely. It’s starting. I believe companies need to do more. However, we all need to take personal responsibility for our wellbeing as well, which I’ve done over the last few years.
What have you done that’s made a difference to your wellbeing personally?
Getting a job was really good for my wellbeing but, at that point, I was still drinking alcohol quite a bit on the weekends. It was probably about 4 or 5 years ago when I looked to improve my wellbeing. I realise now that I was always looking for a big change but, actually, making a series of small changes meant my life got better and better. I started off by learning to breathe properly using the Wim Hof technique. I now do a breathing exercise in the morning.
I started to drink more water and cut out coffee and tea completely.
I have a bedtime regime where the TV and social media goes off and I took my news channel off my phone. When I go to bed, I practice gratitude and think about the good day I’ve had and another round of breathing. When I wake in the morning I do more gratitude, usually thinking about my two grand daughters and I think about their smiling faces. Then a cold shower. And then, throughout the day, I stay in the present moment as best I can.
Do you do anything specifically to manage your thoughts?
The big one is now one of the things I’m grateful for is my wheelchair – so I’ve flipped that thought completely. My wheelchair used to represent everything that’s been taken away from me but now it represents everything it’s given me.
Would you say you are in a better place mentally now than you were when you had the accident?
I invest in my mental health and wellbeing. I have coaching twice a month. I’ve stopped drinking alcohol for 600 days so far. I’m the best version of me I’ve ever been. My wheelchair has actually taken me further in life than my legs ever would have done.
About the author
Suzy Bashford is a freelance journalist, podcaster and workshop facilitator.
She is passionate about destigmatising mental health by creating a more honest, helpful narrative around it, and related topics like emotional intelligence, stress management and empathy. She also believes in the power of creativity and nature to improve our wellbeing, which she covers regularly in articles for the likes of Psychologies magazine and her own podcast, Big Juicy Creative.
When she’s not writing or podcasting, you’ll probably find her dipping in a cold loch, hiking with her dog or biking the mountain trails in the awesome Cairngorms National Park, where she lives.
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