James Smith is the finance director at Kier Highways. Here, James speaks about his personal experience with mental health, what has helped him through difficult times and the importance of raising awareness and removing stigma.

“Like everybody, over the last 12 months or so, my life has changed considerably due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Everything from spending time with family and friends to how we work has completely changed.

Whilst the environment we’re living and working in is the same for everyone, the way it has impacted our lives and our wellbeing differs greatly. For myself, trying to manage work and personal responsibilities, such as childcare, I have found to be a real challenge. Initially I did what I have always done – tackled the problem head on. I got up earlier and went to bed later, doing as much as I possibly could in the time I had with little regard for my physical and mental wellbeing.

Of course, with hindsight, this was a bad strategy and it eventually took its toll as I started to physically and mentally ‘burn-out’. I became irritable, unproductive and generally not a very nice person to be around.

During this time, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, I had previously written off my aches and pains as fatigue related and didn’t seek medical attention until the condition was out of control. The illness has impacted my life immeasurably; I’ve had to take a step back from my hobbies (running, climbing and martial arts), started taking permeant medication for the first time and generally feeling unwell frequently.

Both the pandemic and my newly diagnosed illness have had a big impact on my mental health. For the first time I can recall, I felt unmotivated, couldn’t do the things I enjoy doing and didn’t know what the future held for me. Whilst I was the same person on the outside, on the inside, I felt hopeless and had no idea how to deal with it. I also felt guilty for the way I felt as I was very aware that there was a lot of people in much worse situations than myself, which probably added to my frustrations.

Previously, I had not really taken much notice of my own mental health, I felt happy and had lots of positives in my life and never felt the need to do anything different to what I always had. My experiences over the last 12 months or so have taught me that everything we do, and everything that happens in our lives, both positive and negative, have an impact on your mental health. If you don’t work hard on finding balance in your life and regularly take stock of how you feel, eventually your mental health will suffer. In my opinion, you can’t be the best version of yourself if you do not feel positive and happy, there’s nothing more important in life than making the most of the time we have.

Whilst everyone is different, and I’m certainly not a mental health expert, some tips that have worked well for me are:

  • Talk – talk to those around you. Talk to your family, friends and colleagues about how you’re feeling and why. Not only did it help me deal with how I felt, I also gained lots of great advice and perspective.
  • Make time for yourself – no matter what you’re facing, how busy your professional life may be, take some time for yourself to do the things that make you happy.
  • Get outside – walk, run, cycle, whatever your preference… Some form of physical exercise never fails to help me put things into perspective and generally feel more positive.

I do feel strongly that we all have a part to play in raising awareness of the importance of our own and others’ mental health. A mental illness is invisible, which makes it even more critical that we talk and share our experiences in such a way that we remove any stigma that people may feel about speaking up and getting help."