Health

TV's Anna Williamson: My bosses were so supportive when I had a breakdown

Anna Williamson wants employers to pledge their support for workplace mental health (Joseph Sinclair/PA)
Abi Jackson, PA

Talking about your mental health at work can feel extremely daunting. But TV's Anna Williamson wants people to know, the outcome might be way more positive than you expect.

“I'm proof that if you do talk about it and reach out for help, help really can come,” says the Celebs Go Dating presenter and author, who had a breakdown while at work in 2007.

“I was working for ITV at the time, and I was really, really lucky – and it's horrible to say I was lucky, but I was – that my bosses were empathetic and supportive and cared about me,” adds the mum-of-two, 41, who was diagnosed with generalised anxiety and panic disorder.

“That was so important in order for me to get quick help. And then I got back to work a lot quicker, because I felt supported about that process and that things would be OK for me when I got back, and that's a huge part of it.”

However, she acknowledges speaking up for yourself – especially when you're going through a mentally challenging time – isn't always easy. Workplace culture plays a big part in this, which is why Williamson believes “it's important to lead from the top” when it comes to ensuring employees feel safe and supported.

The media personality – who lives in the Hertfordshire countryside with husband Alex Di Pasquale and their children, Enzo, six, and Eleanora, three, and is also a celebrity ambassador for mental health charity Mind and qualified coach and counsellor – is now supporting Cigna International's 5% pledge initiative, which addresses this very point.

By signing up via the campaign website (pledge5percent.com), business leaders agree to dedicating 5% of their working hours to mental health in the workplace.

“We're specifically asking the top tier of the hierarchy, senior management, to recognise the importance of leading from the top. I've actually signed up for it myself – I have a small business,” adds Williamson, explaining that when taking the pledge, companies will gain access to a range of free resources with “ideas and initiatives” they can implement.

Before launching the initiative, Cigna surveyed 8,000 employees about mental wellbeing. The results suggested 88% were showing signs of burnout, and almost two-thirds said they felt overwhelmed. The figures were even higher for younger age groups, with 96% of the 18-24-year-olds polled experiencing burnout and 91% describing themselves as ‘stressed'.

Although the reasons for high stress and burnout can be complex and there are usually multiple factors involved, the 5% pledge highlights how employers can be proactive in the role they play.

“I'm so impressed that Cigna really understand the importance of mental health in the workplace, and that's why I'm genuinely happy to be working alongside them,” says Williamson.

“So, 88% of employees say they're feeling burned out and stressed, and we can do one of two things. We could ignore those statistics and just tell people to toughen up, get on with it and completely disregard those findings. Or we can listen and ask: Why are employees feeling so stressed?, and most importantly as an employer, what can we do to support people better?”

With work often such a big part of our lives, it makes sense that there's an overlap with our health, and that feeling supported at work matters. As Williamson points out, though, this isn't just about being nice. It's good business sense, too.

“Because guess what – if you have a happy, healthy workforce, they're going to work harder for you, you're going to have less absenteeism. By putting a spotlight on your workforce's mental health, everybody wins,” she adds.

“We spend a third of our life at work, how lovely would it be for someone to say, ‘I go to work because I love it and I feel supported', as opposed to feeling like it's just transactional?”

Since recovering from her breakdown, Williamson has learned a lot about managing her own mental wellbeing.

“I want people to learn from my mistakes. The thing is, I didn't really know at the time, I didn't realise the signs that I was very much spiralling towards burnout,” she shares. “I didn't recognise that I was suffering extreme anxiety. I wasn't sleeping well, I wasn't eating properly, I was feeling highly stressed, and quite detached from my life in general. I was not functioning at all. I made it look like I was, to the outside world, but I wasn't.”

Making adjustments has been “essential”, she says, explaining that taking care of her mental wellbeing means remembering to “really check in regularly with myself and my family, to make sure there is a good work-life family balance, which is really important”.

She continues: “And I make sure I sleep as well as I can, I make sure I feel as good as I can – diet is so under-estimated when it comes to having good mental health, the links are indisputable. And it's important for me to stay away from alcohol and caffeine, if I'm going through a period of feeling particularly stressed about something,” adds Williamson, who also credits regular exercise as being part of her self-care toolkit.

On the topic of work-life balance, she says implementing boundaries is key.

“And that can be hard, particularly if you're an entry-level graduate. I get it – you can't swan into your boss's office and say, ‘Hello, I'd like to set some boundaries here'. But there is a way of doing it,” Williamson adds.

Again, this is why making mental wellbeing part of workplace culture is vital.

“This is why we're asking bosses to take the 5% pledge,” she says. “And if you're an employee, ask your boss to take the pledge and use it as a conversation starter.”

For more information and to take Cigna International's 5% pledge, visit pledge5percent.com