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Director of EPIC HR LTD, Gary Cookson on the power of sharing mental health experiences and how HR can step up to the challenge

Director of EPIC HR LTD, Gary Cookson opens up about his own mental health experiences

Although mental health awareness week has passed, if there’s one thing we’ve learnt, it’s how essential it is to have conversations about our own mental health and the things in our daily lives that can affect our emotions instantly. 

 In conjunction with our #ChooseHappy campaign, Director of EPIC HR LTD, Gary Cookson, was brave enough to open up about his own mental health experiences, the steps to achieving better wellbeing and the need for HR to speak up about mental health. 

 The people profession especially takes a back seat when it comes to addressing their own wellbeing, ensuring their employees have a healthy frame of mind, but it’s time for this to change.

“I can tell when I’m feeling stressed or close to anything like any depressed episode. There are headaches, the feeling of blood rushing around my head and heart palpitations. I’d have trouble sleeping or staying asleep in some cases, and I’d wake very early with my brain really active. If two or more of these symptoms are showing simultaneously, I know I’m feeling very stressed, and I tend to do something about it. 

“In times of stress, I like to do something physical to expend some energy, but sometimes it’s about talking or writing, and I find both incredibly useful to manage my emotional state. I’m a big believer in the power of counselling and other similar techniques.

“But I was brought up to believe men shouldn’t show emotion, and this was considered a sign of weakness, which means I struggle to show emotion and keep it all internal. So, talking and writing gives me an outlet to express my inner feelings.

“According to Mind (Mental Health Charity), one in six people report feeling a common mental health problem like anxiety or depression in any given week, and I have similar situations like this quite a lot, at least once or twice a week.

“It happened this morning. I found myself feeling worried and anxious about an unspecified event. When it happens, I am mystified about what it could actually be making me feel these emotions because there’s no specific situation that could cause it.”

“These emotions pass after an hour or so, but the most frustrating thing about it is there is no obvious trigger for it, and I simply shouldn’t be worried about events like this in my life. But I know when I interact with people, I feel like a tightly coiled spring when I’m experiencing these things, which unfortunately means I don’t give my best.

Director of EPIC HR LTD shares his own mental health experiences

“This feeling makes me want to sit in a quiet room alone until the feeling passes, but the nature of the HR world and all people professionals means that is just rarely possible, and I, and we, have to work through it. 

“So, I have days when I’m 100%, and they’re awesome days. Most days I operate to 85-95%; they’re good days too… but often I have days when mentally, emotionally, I’m a lot less than that. These are not the days to me making key decisions, they’re days that are built for doing things I like and use the coping mechanisms I’ve talked about previously.

I wonder how many employees in your organisation, how many people, how many HR professionals suffer in silence and they don’t speak out because they think their emotional state will be ridiculed, made light of, disbelieved or dismissed out of hand or they don’t have the right coping mechanisms.

“You can’t see most of these problems as people often put up a front, but when someone is telling you they need support, we need to listen, we need to believe them, we need to support them – just because it’s in their heads, it doesn’t make it any less real in any way. In fact, it makes it much more terrifying and if you’re part of someone’s coping mechanisms, as many HR professionals will be, help them and be there for them.

“We’ve got a real challenge on our hands to encourage people to speak up and a real challenge to get people to listen and take such things seriously. But it’s one that I’m up for, are you?”

About Gary Cookson:

A household name to many throughout the HR landscape, Gary Cookson has over twenty years’ experience within senior leadership roles across a variety of sectors. Gary continues to gain a credible amount of reputation through his award-winning training, tutoring, speaking and blogging. 

Combining his expertise, Gary is now the Director of EPIC HR. EPIC specialises in helping people and places to evolve, improve and compete – providing a range of HR, OD and L&D consultancy and personalised training services.