“I think a big part of success in football is mental, not physical. How you are inside your head matters more.”Iker Casillas
As I write, I’ve been signed off for four months due to on-going mental health problems. This week has been hard, and I’m writing this from my bed. As I’ve currently lost all motivation to get up; or leave the house. These ups and down are part of my life.
Everything needs context.
I was a goalkeeper as a teenager, and not a bad one either. But that’s where any comparisons with the Real Madrid and Spain legend ends… He’s clearly one the games’ thinkers too.
So, I’m writing this as a man, Liverpool fan, and someone living with many mental health issues.
In May of last year, Liverpool played Real Madrid (then an incredible twelve times winners) in the European Cup final. In goal that night for us, was a young German, Loris Karius. Signed in 2016, for £4.7 million from Mainz, he was viewed as a goalkeeper with huge potential. But his performances were very inconsistent. And that night, aged just twenty-five, he ran out into the biggest game in European football. The biggest game of his life, and made two high-profile errors, as Liverpool lost. But instead of rallying round the young man; he was slaughtered by the press, and even worse, many Liverpool fans….
Soon after, he left Liverpool on loan. He was clearly struggling… A picture paints a thousand words, right? Well in this case it was the world’s sporting cameras that captured his public pain.
How you are inside your head matters more.
Sport is a global business. And how people are treated in sport and business deeply troubles me. I’m worried about him, and about so many people in business. Most of us spend more of our lives at work than at home. So, I believe this makes my feelings justified. Not that I should have to justify them anyway.
Nobody has said Karius is suffering from mental health problems. But it’s so important to look back at the past; really focus on the present, and make sure we don’t make the same mistakes in the future.
After a recent win, yes, a win! His current coach said of Karius:
“He was at fault for the goals he conceded. Karius has gone a bit stagnant, something is wrong with his electricity, motivation, enthusiasm for the game. It has been like that since the beginning. He does not really feel a part of the team, it’s something we haven’t been able to work out and, of course, I am partly to blame for this. Let me put it this way, if I still had Tolga available I would play him.”
Rewind seventeen years, back to 2002. Talented young German goalkeeper Robert Enke made his dream move to Barcelona. He had it all. A loving family and the football world at his feet. But he too, suffered with a crisis of form and confidence. He too was hammered by the press and Barcelona fans during his two years there… The difference here was the Robert was unwell, but still to a degree suffering in silence. But only seven years later, On 10 November 2009 while playing for Hannover, he left his home as usual… Told his wife he was going to training and walked in front of a train. Nobody expected this, nobody was prepared, nobody knew how he was really feeling. At the time he was widely regarded as having a great chance of representing his county at the 2010 world cup.
This is why I’m worried about Karius. But not just him. Everyone who is working, while living with mental health issues and illness. I’m worried about how far we’ve come in that time, and how much we still need to do.
When he transferred from Liverpool, Loris Karius experienced public failure and humiliation. So why, after ten months, does he still not feel part of his new team and squad at Besiktas? How can anyone in business be expected to perform, and excel, if they feel isolated at work and their manager openly admits this? Is it acceptable for people to still feel disconnected from the rest of their team and even unable to talk about their problems? No. Quite simply, any team or organisation should feel ashamed if they are faced with this situation.
Last week, Kelly Catlin, a young Olympic cyclist committed suicide. She was just 23. The very saddest thing is that she had tried to take her own life before this tragedy happened. Suicide in society must stop. But it won’t happen overnight. It will take time. But managing mental health issues at work (and sport is work), for me, is one of the biggest and most important problems we face.
In business, I believe many organisations are still scared of mental health; and don’t know how to approach it, manage it, and support employees living with mental health problems and mental illness. I’ve spoken to enough people to know this is very real. And was recently contacted by someone who was offered a golden handshake after opening-up about their mental health problems. This just feels like throwing money at a problem and hoping it will go away… When it just won’t.
Like I said, some organisations still seem scared.
People feel shut out, disconnected, unwanted and unsupported. Once off work due to long-term sickness many employees feel isolated, worried, alone and scared. It’s a lonely, demoralising place. I don’t want to be at home. I want to be working, to feel like I’m contributing, that I have worth, and value.
Suicide will not go away. However tightly people shut their eyes; and try to ignore it. But businesses have a chance to make a difference. Not just through policies and procedures that protect them. But to work with, and listen to people who are struggling, but also have ideas about how employees can be better supported and empowered.
People are under so much time and performance pressure today. Surely it makes sense to use resources close to them? People with real mental health knowledge and experience are invaluable. Why outsource training and development work when you could invest time in your own people? Take them seriously. Listen to them. Give senior executives and management the time to think strategically about how to approach this problem. Any organisation can become a beacon for mental health workplace progression if they give themselves time.
In many cases people still feel under so much pressure they don’t take their lunch breaks, and log-on outside working hours, including their commute to and from work, if they travel by train. This is something that needs to be addressed. How can anyone be expected to maintain a healthy work-life balance under so much pressure? How do you cope if you’re trying to manage mental health problems and increasing stress and workloads? It’s hard, and many people not only crack, they crumble. I know this from experience.
Football has huge financial resources, so for people (players, but this also applies to managers and match officials) to be treated like Karius, is not acceptable. Sport is supposed to be progressive. Yet it’s widely viewed that people are unable to be honest about their sexuality, addictions, mental health; and how they feel. Which unquestionably filters down into mainstream business and society.
And how does this affect people? People who feel they have no choice but to bottle things up, to live secret lives? Maybe they slip into an addiction? Their relationships breakdown? They lose their jobs, their homes? Get into debt? But it can get so much worse. And far too often, people lose people close to them, people they love. People they will never see again.
It seems that in modern society, instant results are demanded, expected and almost taken for granted. In so many situations, so are the people. Me? Like so many, I just want to be heard… To have a platform, to reach people, to make a difference. To be part of change; something amazing.
For the last two years I’ve been writing a book, ideas for business work-shops and an app, all in my own time. My only aim being to try and help people who are finding life and work difficult, and maybe even to help employers do more, and do better. It’s a win, win situation. And that’s exactly how it should be… United, not divided. We are so much stronger together.
The reality might be that we still have to fight, when we should not have to. But this doesn’t mean we should give up. In fact, it just means we have to fight harder.
The sport and business world have an obligation to society… To help look after people, and each other. To embrace mental health problems and work together to develop and implement strategies. To not only encourage people to talk about their problems. But ensure people can continue to work, and businesses remain agile, healthy and profitable.
Irrespective of the size of the company and wages; people matter. Employees matter. We bring the value, we bring the success. We create the profits, we are everything.
Of course, business is vitally important to society… But it’s nothing without healthy people. It’s nothing without us.
Stephen Gillatt is the author of mental health memoir “Mad, sad, dysfunctional dad.” Available in April via Amazon and www.theconradpress.com