I joined the Nationwide Foundation, a British corporate funder, as a grants officer eleven years ago. In 2014, our chief executive went on maternity leave and I took on the role on an interim basis. The role became permanent in March 2015 when my predecessor decided not to return to work. Unfortunately, the pressure of the role (alongside other things in my life), took its toll on my mental health and I have suffered from depression for a significant period of my time as chief executive.
It took me a while to recognise it, and when I did, a lot longer to ask for help because the role requires you to show yourself being a strong leader that your team and board can rely on.
I quickly found that the role of a CEO is a lonely one, and I hadn’t expected this.
Not having peers within the organisation is a strange dynamic for someone like me that constantly bounces off others.
Also, the structure of a charity with a voluntary board imposes a certain distance which compounds the isolation.
Not that the board wasn’t willing to help; they always were. But I didn’t want to seem needy – they had appointed me because they believed I could do the job and I didn’t want to let them down.
It was also fear which prevented me from asking for help.
Fear that everyone would find out that I wasn’t able to do my job; that all my feelings of being a failure would be proved correct; and that even if I got better, I would be stuck with a stigma that I wasn’t up to the job.
But when I did find the courage to ask, some of the weight instantly lifted and I have gradually realised that none of the things I feared were true.
No-one saw me the way I saw myself, I was doing a good job despite how I felt, and people genuinely wanted to help me.
It was really heart-warming to have had such incredible support and I am so thankful for this.
I told the chair of our foundation first. He immediately looked for ways to help take some of the pressure off.
For example, bringing in external help to support me with some large and challenging pieces of work.
On the emotional side, he regularly checked in with me to ask me how I was and let me know he was happy to listen.
These check-ins gave me permission to say what was concerning me. My energy levels felt like a water bowser that emptied at full speed but was only being filled up by a slow drip and the support allowed me space to work on building my resilience.
After emerging from the other side, I feel stronger than before.
I am comfortable in my own skin and am no longer an imposter in this job.
Of course, I have doubts and fears and stressful times, but they are at pretty normal levels. I am also confident that I will spot the signs much earlier and I take the time to ask myself how I am doing.
There is a note on my desk that asks me how my water bowser is today.
This reminds me to stop and breathe for a moment rather than keep battling on. We all must take time to look after ourselves as we are no good to anyone else if we don’t.
I hope that my experience and the way in which I was supported, has resulted in a more open and supportive work place where we know we can rely on each other.
I see now that depression twists your reality.
Very little had changed in my external world, but how I see things had changed. This is why it can be so hard for people to know how to help – things that seem like sensible advice and logical steps towards feeling better, make no sense when your reality is skewed.
Some people asked me why I didn’t leave my job, but this would have reinforced what a failure I was. Others, including my chair, told me that I must wait until I was better to make that decision – and they were right.
The support I had, on a practical an emotional level, let me build up my strength and resilience.
This was the right answer for me and for the foundation. If I hadn’t had that I would have had to leave and this would have taken much longer to recover from.
Now I have no desire to go anywhere!
The support we have around us is key to getting better.
That’s as true in the foundation sector as anywhere else.
So talk about it, ask people how they are, listen, do something nice for someone when you think they might be struggling, because they might not be able to see it themselves.
Leigh Pearce is CEO of the Nationwide Foundation.
An original version of this article appeared in the December 2017 issue of Trust and Foundation News, published by the UK Association of Charitable Foundations.