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Nick Page: 'Work exacerbated my mental health condition'

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Solihull MBC’s chief executive has spoken to LGC about living with a mental health condition and urged other senior officers to do more to break down barriers with their own staff and tackle the stigma attached to the issue.

Nick Page said councils need to start taking mental health issues more seriously as staff struggle to cope with increasing professional and personal pressures.

This comes as an LGC survey of 285 chiefs and senior officers revealed three-quarters know of colleagues who have a mental health condition.

Mr Page said: “My stress, depression and anxiety comes from me, it doesn’t come from work, but work draws it out and exacerbates it because I spend most of my time at work. That’s the key thing… therefore stress, depression and anxiety, mental health for us as a sector shows more now in work.”

He likened coping with his mental health condition to trying to stop a glass of water from overflowing.

“In 2012, completely out of the blue, the glass had a catastrophic overfilling. I just lost it,” he said. “I had periods in my life where it had overflowed but, to continue the analogy, I had managed to mop it up and that’s due to things like having a great wife and kids. But on that occasion, it was just like a cataclysmic flood and I just lost all control and perspective.”

Mr Page had taken over as director of children’s services at Salford City Council which, at the time, became the first local authority to have its children’s social care services fail an Ofsted inspection under the coalition government.

That period was “quite intense, really hard at work but my focus and energy carried me through”. ”It was only towards the end of the improvement journey that my cracks started to appear,” he said. ”For a short period of time I was in a very lonely, dark and dangerous place where to be honest I didn’t care for and about myself.”

He sought professional help and is now successfully managing his mental health condition through a combination of medication, cognitive behaviour therapy, mindfulness, and acupuncture.

Four years ago, Mr Page was appointed Solihull’s chief executive. About a year later he said he felt sufficiently secure and confident in his role to tell staff he “suffers with mental health”. He added: “I also live with it, and I also manage it. I am lucky.”

Mr Page said he was keen to be open because he recognised some parts of his workforce were beginning to struggle under pressure.

“We were seeing sickness absence in some of our teams going up and that was primarily stress related, and it just felt right for me to say I know how my people feel,” he said. “It was unscripted but it needed saying. I don’t mind admitting my knees were knocking but I thought if I am asking people to go an extra three or four miles, let alone a mile, then they need to know from their leader and my privileged position that I know what it feels like.”

Mr Page said openness plays a key part in the way he leads the council’s management.

“I am finding, as part of that leadership journey, I am having to give more of my own narrative because I find it difficult to stay authentic otherwise. I am having a wonderful response from my staff to that.”

Mr Page said he knew he had been right to tell staff when a long-serving colleague gave him a hug and told him he had a mental health condition too. It has now opened up a conversation between staff members.

At Solihull, almost 30% of sickness absence is related to stress, anxiety and mental health. As a result, mental health workers have been brought in, while about 400 members of staff, as well as school children, have been trained in mental health first aid. Work-time activities including Nordic walking, yoga and meditation have been introduced, while Mr Page is urging his staff to not send emails after 7pm, at weekends or when on holiday.

“I will only do an email if it is life-threatening – everything else can wait. That is important. That is the privilege of leadership where you can pace-set. The feedback I have had from that is wonderful. It’s not rocket science, it’s mental health and wellbeing science. It is behaviour change.”

Mr Page said that, unlike with a physical condition, there is “a mystique and a narrative around mental health” which can lead to some people telling others to “just get a grip of yourself”.

“I just think that is such a cruel and outdated way of approaching this,” he said.

Mr Page urged other chiefs and senior officers to “debunk” the myth around mental health conditions.

“The national evidence is one in four suffer with some form of mental health condition,” he said. “Local government needs to look at this and get stuck in. Because even if you don’t have a mental health condition you will know somebody, or love somebody, or sit next to somebody at work who will have it.

“It doesn’t mean they are less than anybody else. Sometimes it can mean they are a bit more because they have some empathy that we don’t have.”

Mr Page said having “a few pals around you [at work] who know everything” is key to helping to manage a mental health condition but he urged people to get support from loved ones before opening up to others as “it can be very traumatic for them too. I am feeling so much better now and Solihull looks after me”.

However, Mr Page said “we need to galvanise our sector” to talk about mental health. He said he hoped bodies like the Local Government Association and the Society for Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers will put the issue high on the agenda.

“We have a societal role as leaders to give ourselves the opportunity to talk about it,” he said. ”What we do about it then is the next chapter.”

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