With the theme of this week’s Mental Health Awareness Week being anxiety, it seemed apt to flag up one of our highly commended ‘Unsung Heroes’ – Samantha Walters – in the Make A Difference Awards, who has normalised conversations about anxiety at her place of work: the Metropolitan Police.
Walters, who is Support Staff and Wellbeing SPOC in MO11, has used her difficult personal experiences as fuel to drive forward the wellbeing agenda in order that colleagues are better supported. Her colleagues are working in specialist crime, so are subject to traumatic events such as murders and gang warfare.
A self-confessed energetic and outspoken person, she’s made it her mission to open up the mental health conversation, create tools and resources and a network of advocates. This was even true when she was going through her own excruciating anxiety triggered by work pressure, perimenopause and her sons’ mental health struggles.
Who better to ask about strategies to deal with anxiety this Mental Health Awareness Week?
Mental health at the Metropolitan Police was really put on the agenda during the Covid-19 pandemic, is that right?
Yes. Obviously crime doesn’t stop just because there’s a disease out there. We had to maintain our normal daily routine but we had some staff working remotely, some in the office, others coming down with Coronavirus, others isolating…
Our jobs were harder because there were less bodies physically available to work. Add to that segregated working and social distancing, and that was the start of everybody being much more aware of mental health.
At that point, I decided to start looking at how we could support staff because we couldn’t afford to have people being off sick with stress, as well as people being off with Coronavirus. I became that person who would check in with each team within HQ, asking how everyone was, and ensuring we’d share ideas and have team chats on Zoom, etc.
What have you learnt about supporting others experiencing mental health issues like anxiety, depression and stress?
The biggest thing I’ve learnt is that we are all different. So what works for me, might not work for you. You can’t say to someone ‘you must do this because it worked for me’.
The important thing is being able to listen and hear what they are saying. Then you can suggest things and talk them through, or point people to other recommendations.
Good communication is the key. If you can communicate well with that person, or group of people, then you can share your knowledge and your experiences, and all gain from doing that.
When communications break down, that’s the start of everything else breaking down.
You’re very open about the fact that supporting others at this stressful time really took its mental toll on you personally. Can you tell me more about that and what you learnt about the balance between supporting yourself and supporting colleagues?
I was trying to support staff but was also experiencing a lot of stress myself. I was working towards promotion and probably putting too much pressure on myself.
I couldn’t understand why I was turning up to work not knowing how I’d got there, or what I was doing, with my anxiety levels rocketing out of control. It got to the point where I was breaking down crying all the time, falling apart and just had to admit defeat. I had to say “I don’t feel well, I don’t know what’s happening with me. I feel like I’m having an out of body experience”.
Luckily, we’ve got menopause champions and a frontline officer reached out to me and said “it sounds to me like you’re going through the perimenopause, as well as stress that you’ve not released through the pandemic, plus tension around your promotion… all this while trying to make sure everyone else is alright!”
What was that like, having someone approach you and recognise your struggle?
I felt relieved because I’d been wondering what was wrong with me. It’s good to know that there are genuine people, who you’ve never met before in the Met, even though it’s a massive organisation, that will come forward to support you.
I had been managing my perimenopause at that point for a while, even seeing a consultant, but it just got to the point where everything felt out of control. I think what tipped it was I was also dealing with a very delicate situation with both of my sons at home, involving suicide prevention. I felt like I couldn’t take any more, dealing with mental health in the workplace at the same time that my family’s mental health was falling apart.
Have you also been open at work about the situation with your sons’ mental health struggles?
Yes. That’s how we learn. If I’m a closed book, and I don’t talk about things, how am I supposed to learn? How can other people learn from your experience?
Of course, I felt like it was my weakness and I had ‘gone wrong’ somewhere. But the good thing was I was able to talk honestly to my son about why he felt the way he did. He explained that he could see how much pressure I was under, and how stressed I was. He knew I was worried about paying his University fees.
It made me realise that when you have anxiety, you panic about everything, to the extent that he felt that a way of helping me would be if he wasn’t here. One less thing to worry about. But the only way you get out of these terribly difficult and upsetting situations is that you talk things through, which I’m so glad we were able to do. And now, having been there, I can advise other people in a similar situation.
Did anything else particularly strike you about the experience of having anxiety, that you might not know if you haven’t personally suffered?
Yes. I never realised how much anxiety can affect your muscles. I’d get so tight in my neck and my shoulders, so much so that I’d want to physically punch someone because you’re so tense.
What did you learn eased your anxiety, especially at work?
Yoga is a really good way to help me de-stress. You can even do it at your desk, or a bit of breathing. Or you can use calming techniques like rubbing lavender oil on your pulse points. And I’ve tried things that I would never think I’d ever do, like meditation.
It also made me feel better making people aware that if I do just disappear from the office for a minute, that’s because I need a quiet moment, or a cry, and it’s OK.
I’ve now learned that, as well as reaching out and making sure everybody else is OK, I must look after myself. You have to be kind to yourself and let yourself try new things. And take time to enjoy the simple things in life, like going for a walk and nature.
If you have faith in yourself, and look after yourself, your confidence will come back and you will be happier again.
What team-related tips can you share about tackling anxiety at work?
Teaching people that they leave work at work is very important, especially when you work at places like the Met. So many people find that really difficult.
It’s also important for my team to have time out together, away from the office, where we can regroup and talk about how we are feeling and whether work is having a detrimental impact.
What are your ambitions going forward with wellbeing at the Met?
I want to make sure that all the team leaders and are aware of all this knowledge and it helps make better decisions and positive changes, so that workplace adjustments can be put in place.