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Why we need to hear about our boss’ mental health

Dean Cartwright had a mantra that had always worked for him: “When the going gets tough, work harder.” But as he approached his 50th birthday, in mid-2017, it stopped working.

The director of finance at law firm Hall and Wilcox found himself cycling the 20 kilometres to work each day with tears streaming down his face.

Dean Cartwright is sharing his story to help support others.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

He struggled through the next six months and hoped a family holiday over Christmas would be the “circuit breaker” he needed, but that didn’t work either. Three days after he returned to work Cartwright found himself “glued” to his desk. “I couldn’t speak and I couldn’t stop crying,” he recalled.

He went home, spent three days in bed and took 10 weeks leave from work while he sought help from a psychologist and started medication. “To be so hardened my whole life … I never in this world thought this would happen to me,” said the father-of-two. “I just felt this infinite sadness.”

While he took time to recover, his boss rallied: “He phoned my wife and said, ‘Get him well, take as long as he needs’,” said Cartwright, who heads a team of 20 staff. “It took the pressure off … I never wanted to be seen as a weak person and you don’t want people doubting whether you can or can’t do your job. To make it like a broken leg or a cold was magnificent.”

The support his colleagues provided was “pivotal” to his recovery. To show that it’s OK to speak up and that “people will listen and care about you” he opened up about his experience at last year’s RUOK? Day in front of Hall and Wilcox’s 700 employees.

“I feel really good,” he said, adding he manages his life differently now and is more mindful of his mental health. “We can get better and talking about it will help unburden you.”

One in five Australian workers is currently experiencing a mental health condition and by some estimates the rate of depression among executives is double that of the general population.

Suicide in Australia is now the leading cause of death among people 15 – 44 years and the fourth leading cause for those aged 45-64. New research by KPMG on behalf of Suicide Australia has found that rates are set to rise 40 per cent unless risk factors including finance, employment and loneliness are addressed.

If they open up and show vulnerability, people will feel safer. I think we look to [the boss], whether we like them or not.

Katherine Newton, CEO of RUOK? Day believes that bosses opening up about their mental health challenges can help reduce some of the stigma in the workplace and help people feel supported.

‘We can get better and talking about it will help’.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

“If they open up and show vulnerability, people will feel safer,” Newton said. “I think we look to [the boss], whether we like them or not. It shows that they are human and the most important thing about mental health and suicide prevention… it’s important that we recognise each other as humans.”

“If leaders lead by example, leaders will start to normalise these life ups and downs and these challenges, so then collectively we can shift that stigma dial even more. Stuff happens, life happens and just because we turn up at the office, it doesn’t mean life switches off.”

Thursday 12 September 2019 is “R U OK? Day”, a national day of action and a reminder that every day is the right day to meaningfully connect with those around us and ask the question that could change a life, “Are you OK?”

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