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Jenni Ellegard spoke about her depression at a Siemens leadership conference, encouraging other employees to share their stories Jenni Ellegard spoke about her depression at a Siemens leadership conference, encouraging other employees to share their stories

“THE BIGGEST WORRY IS THAT SOMEONE'S GOING TO SAY YOU'RE MAKING IT UP”

As part of our series of articles on mental health in the workplace, Lisa Gwinnell and Jenni Ellegard from Siemens share their experiences.

18th April 2017

A lot of people hide their mental health problem. Find a good support network who understands what you are going through, because when you are suffering you can feel lonelier than you imagined possible.

JENNI ELLEGARD, SIEMENS

Until a couple of years ago, mental health issues in Siemens UK’s 15,000-strong organisation were managed on a case-by-case basis – with different approaches in different areas of the business. Anyone needing support could request it from HR. 

A turning point came when chief executive Juergen Maier spoke openly at a leadership forum about his experience of burnout while in his early career.

“He outlined the need for employees to look after themselves and each other,” says Lisa Gwinnell, head of employee and leadership communications. “He challenged everyone to be open and talk more.”

His story sent a ripple through the management community. The power of a board member’s honesty created a momentum shift. “It elevated the topic of mental wellbeing and helped reduce the stigma in the workplace,” says Lisa. “We saw an uptake of managers wanting to equip themselves with knowledge to support their employees. People were talking about it more.” 

Workshops were set up to share tips and tools to manage the mind, build self-awareness, resilience and reduce the anxieties of modern life, and the business scaled up its work with mental health charity Mind on a national scale.

 

The power of a shared experience

One of Lisa’s former team members, Jenni Ellegard, says opening up about her depression was one of the biggest hurdles.

“I was too scared to speak to Lisa face to face initially, so I wrote how I was feeling and emailed her,” Jenni recalls. “The biggest worry anyone suffering has is that you’re going to tell someone and they’re going to say you’re making it up or just having a bad day.”

Jenni felt low and daily tasks were almost impossible. She felt a shadow of who she used to be. “I didn’t want Lisa to think I wasn’t doing my job properly. At the time, I had no idea it was depression.” 

Lisa and Jenni spoke for an hour and a half. “I thought she’d tell me to take it easy and I’d be okay tomorrow – but she didn’t,” says Jenni. “She was so understanding and supportive, and I don’t think she knows how much that meant to me.”

Line managers don’t have to understand all of the ins and outs of it, says Jenni. “You just need to understand that sometimes people need more help than you realise, and it doesn’t take much to say to someone, ‘I’m here for you.’ Sometimes that’s all they need.”

Referred to the employee assistance programme, Jenni started counselling. “The sessions were hard at first,” she says. “You’re trying to communicate this thing going on in your head and it can feel intrusive, but you know that you have to keep going to get to the root about why it’s happening and what the triggers are.”

Jenni says that accepting she had a mental health problem was a big step in her recovery. “A lot of people hide it. Find a good support network who understands what you are going through and who are at the end of a phone, because when you are suffering you can feel lonelier than you imagined possible.”

 

11%
Percentage of employees who discussed a recent mental health problem with their line manager.
Source: Business in the Community: Mental Health at Work Report 2016

 

During her recovery, Jenni became one of the company’s network of wellbeing champions and spoke at the same leadership conference Juergen spoke at the year before – a groundbreaking experience in more ways than one, says Lisa.

“It was a step change anyway to have employees presenting who weren’t senior managers, but turning it into a platform where people could collaborate openly about something so personal was a big thing. That’s the culture we’re aiming for, and it comes from people like Jenni and Juergen standing up and telling their stories. It triggered others to come forward. As soon as Jenni’s session finished, an employee in the audience stood up and gave his story unprompted.”

Jenni’s colleague told her he would not have spoken out if she hadn’t done so first. Jenni published her speech on the internal social platform and a video of her speech was used in face-to-face briefings. “I had dozens of private messages through our social network from people who said they called the employee assistance programme because of my presentation,” says Jenni. “It felt like I was the first person to talk about it.

“A lot of people said I’d hidden my depression well because I’m a happy outgoing person. People who act the happiest can be suffering. I felt really passionate about sharing my experiences and it was brilliant to see how many other people were moved by it.”

Read our previous article, Taming the black dog.

 

A lot of people hide their mental health problem. Find a good support network who understands what you are going through, because when you are suffering you can feel lonelier than you imagined possible.

JENNI ELLEGARD, SIEMENS

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