Jon Howcroft-Stemp is the Colleague Services and Business Management Director for Lloyds Banking Group
Today marks the annual International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. With this year’s theme being mental health, it’s caused me to reflect on the roller-coaster year that I’ve had and how much can change in this short time.
But it started way before that. I realised a while ago, that not everything felt right in my world. I’ve suffered from depression for at least 17 years, during which there have been many difficult times and I’ve been close to a breakdown on more than one occasion.
However, it wasn’t until early 2014 that I realised I had to face the root of the problem — and that was my sexuality. I made a conscious decision to be honest with myself, my family, and my friends by facing what had caused me so much pain in the past — the fact that despite being married I was actually gay. As a father of two adult children, it wasn’t going to be an easy journey.
The timing wasn’t great either as I’d recently taken a new, bigger role with my employer, Lloyds Banking Group, which left me feeling anxious that I’d wipe myself out with the changes I needed to make. I initially tried to continue working at the pace I was used to, but it soon became clear I needed to slow down for a bit.
I confided in my line manager and my team that I was really struggling with some personal issues and they were exceptionally supportive and didn’t judge me. It wasn’t about saying ‘I’m gay’, it was more about wanting them to know that I’d probably have some ups and downs. In recognising the pressure I was under, my line manager said that if I needed to take time off then I should take it, which I didn’t, but knowing I had the support and permission to meant a lot.
It was all part of a journey for me as I started to learn why I chose to live the way I did. With the support of those around me I started to feel more comfortable and open about who I was. When I came into the office and people asked me what I did at the weekend, I talked openly about my weekend with a ‘he’ rather than a ‘she,’ without fear of judgement.
Initially it was very liberating, but then in 2015 I suffered another setback when I was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder, which hit me hard. It was actually following a lunch organised by two close colleagues that I realised I needed to seek further help. They’d become increasingly concerned about me and noticed that I wasn’t my usual self, so wanted to help get me back to being the ‘old Jon’ that they’d worked with for the last 25 years.
They really held me together during that dark period and helped me access occupational health and our private healthcare services, which led to the diagnosis. It sounds so simple, but when you’re in such a bad place it can be really difficult to do even the simplest of things. Not wanting to take time out of the workplace, my employer created a role for me that allowed me to continue working in my area of expertise without the pressure of hitting deadlines.
Twelve months on from what was a significantly struggling year for me, I can now say that’s all changed and I’m building a new future for myself. I’m beginning to accept that I’ve made some very positive changes, and can actually spend time enjoying the life I’m comfortable leading as the real me — both at home and in the office.
Being comfortable with my sexuality and my mental health has been immensely freeing — I can now say to people that I’m having a bad day and not feel like I need to hide away my true self.
With this in mind, I decided to share my story within the wider business. Far from being judgemental, my colleagues reacted in a way that says, ‘we respect you for being open and honest and having the integrity to do what you’ve done. If Jon can be open about his sexuality as well as his mental health, then if I have a problem I can talk to him’.
Giving other people the confidence that they can do it too has been one of the best things to come out of my decision to share my story. You often find support where you least expect it — and I have to say I’m amazed at the positive reactions, comments and emails I’ve received from my colleagues.
Mental health can still be the great unsaid within the workplace, but for most people work takes up a huge amount of time in day to day life so it’s vital that companies start talking about it. It’s important they understand the needs of their employees and can spot the signs, and provide the appropriate support to those who may need it.
There’s a lot of work going on at Lloyds Banking Group about how we as an organisation support people going through difficult times, and my experiences provide a unique insight to lead that agenda empathetically. I realised early on that you can’t go through a change like this on your own. You have to reach out and find people, ways and groups to support you. Through talking and sharing, you help yourself and others. Colleagues can also access support and advice by clicking onto our internal microsite from their desks.
None of this is easy, but for me, the support of my employer and my colleagues played an enormous role in my recovery and in pulling me through my darkest days. Lloyds Banking Group’s approach to its colleagues runs through its very core — from top to bottom — and I’m living proof of the difference it can make to a person. As an organisation, we’re strong believers that you should be able to feel comfortable bringing your complete self to work, and shouldn’t have to hide, change or compromise anything about yourself. We have created an environment which embraces individual strengths, ideas, skills and thoughts, as we know that employees who feel included perform better, make better decisions, and are more engaged – which is good news for everyone.
I, like all of us, am a work in progress. I can see now that I have a life in which ultimately I’ll be so much happier and honest and my performance at work is now better than ever.