Going Batty - A Candid Piece on Mental Health as an Ecologist

Going Batty - A Candid Piece on Mental Health as an Ecologist

Dealing with my mental health as an ecologist


In the summer of 2019, the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) chose ‘Health and Well-being in the Ecology and Environmental Management Profession’ as the point of focus for their summer conference.

Unfortunately, due to workloads at the time (mid-July being the middle of bat survey season!) I wasn’t able to attend. However, it got me thinking about how my profession has affected me and my mental well-being over the years, and how I’ve changed my attitude and mentality over time to adapt to the various challenges my chosen profession brings to the table.

My reason for writing this is because I think there are still some barriers up when it comes to talking about mental health. Some of my colleagues (both past and present) will be aware of my mental health problems; whereas for others, including some of my current colleagues this will be the first they’ve heard about it. In an ideal world, we all talk about mental health freely and without judgement, hopefully this piece will promote some helpful discussion around the topic. I’ve written this piece in a relatively jovial manner which I hope you will enjoy reading, there are of course some serious points to be made, but discussions around mental health don’t have to be total doom and gloom!

Like many people who have to deal with these issues, I hadn’t realised that I wasn’t well until I was sat in front of a councillor, giving answers on a sliding scale to questions such as “do you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep?”, “Have you been feeling tired or had little energy?” and the biggie “have you considered harming yourself or thought you’d be better off dead?”. After filling out the sheet, the councillor told me that my scores indicated that I had major depression and severe anxiety, a diagnosis later confirmed by my GP.

I was very lucky as I had a “penny drop” moment, on my way to work one morning. I knew at that point that something wasn’t right and I probably needed to get some help. Fortunately, I had the support of my family and close friends (as well as a few colleagues), and through repeated counselling sessions and a series of lifestyle changes I got back to what I consider to be a good state of well-being. During this process, I realised that the career I’d chosen, a career I’d always wanted, was exacerbating my conditions and I had to do something about it.

I don’t think anything I’ve said in here is particularly revolutionary, but I do hope that if you’re struggling with mental health I’ve helped you to realise that these issues are incredibly common and that there are simple things you can do to help yourself on the road to recovery. Around 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year and being able to talk to someone about the issues you’re facing, especially in a job that can be incredibly stressful, is a great first step to getting the help you need.

Three key things to address for me when I was dealing with depression and anxiety were nutrition, physical activity and sleep. One major issue for me was that I never felt I had enough time to address at least two of these. Not enough time to catch up on sleep during the day because I had reports to write, not enough time to exercise because I had sleep to catch up on, or because I chose to spend quality time at home rather than sleep! I was also a sucker (and to be honest, still am) for fast food before or after surveys. I was constantly catching up on one or multiple aspects of my life and felt like I was a one-legged man performing a juggling act on a unicycle with some sadistic git throwing plates at me to juggle. Eventually, some of those plates, or I, had to fall!

Nutrition is probably one of the easier things to address as an ecologist. You just have to take responsibility for ensuring that you don’t automatically default to the quickest option available and plan ahead. Some easy things I changed included:

·        Make extra for your evening meal for lunch the next day (it’s usually better and cheaper than shop-bought sarnies!)

·        Cook with your family/partner/pets (the involvement of the latter is clearly negligible) when you get home and talk to them about your respective days. You see a lot less of them in the survey season, make the time you do have with them count!

·        Preparing breakfast (if you have it) the night before. Overnight oats were my go-to!

·        Get an office fruit/healthy snack bowl going. We always have apples and easy peelers in our meeting room.

·        Try to avoid eating outside of your “usual” routine. If you usually have breakfast at 8, don’t eat immediately after the end of a dawn survey at 5:30. Your gut gets used to when you eat, and the poor thing can get confused if you start throwing dietary curve balls. 

I’m not saying I’m a saint when it comes to nutrition. I still stop-off at McDonald’s for a sausage and egg McMuffin meal occasionally, but it’s certainly not a regular thing. I’m now far more conscious of the positive effects of a healthy (or healthier!) diet.

Exercise and sleep are two things that were (and still are to an extent) the most difficult for me to address. As ecologists, we’re really REALLY (imagine this is a flashing neon sign) busy for at least 6 months of the year, surveying sites for protected species such as bats and great crested newts whilst trying to complete reports. Freelance ecologists and those higher up the career ladder also have the added responsibilities of running and maintaining a successful business on top of that.

Species surveys near dusk/dawn are where we bid farewell to our valuable sleep hours, with bat surveys usually being the main culprit. For bat surveys (as an example) we’re usually out up to 2 hours after sunset and then up 2+ hours before the crack of dawn for dawn surveys. Some of us, though not all of us, are then expected to come into the office and do a full, productive day of work afterwards.

How ecologists recoup those hours varies significantly in the industry and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. For me personally, the system we currently employ whereby surveyors have time off prior to the survey (to get some time at home with family) and time immediately after to catch up on sleep (or bank hours to take later that week) works better than other systems I’ve used in the past. It allows us to get the sleep we need and deliver on the work required. It also means we aren’t in hours of sleep deficit at the end of the season, and that we aren’t all taking time off when reports need writing. We’ve also recently introduced a system whereby if one of the team needs to come in for an urgent meeting or to finish a really urgent report (usually a result of deadline changes), those hours are banked for them to have off later.

Sure, it equates to less time in the office/working from home, and our ecologists rarely work for 8 hours straight after surveys. I can however guarantee they’re being more productive with the time that they’re working than if they’d rolled in for 8 hours work after completing a survey…and potentially before going out on another one, only for the process to start again!

There is a clear link between high-quality sleep and good mental and physical health. As a profession we absolutely must recognise the impact that our roles have on our sleep and take steps to addressing those impacts through sensible and fair time management. Fundamentally for me it boils down to having trust in your team and allowing them to manage their own time and tiredness levels such that they’re able get the job done effectively. It also means being aware of your own team, for example if a team member is working more than they should be and not taking time off (often a result of conscientious team members having intensive, possibly unmanageable workloads), management need to have the confidence to be able to tell them to get some rest and systems in place to pick up that project work.

A few things I have tried below have really helped me to figure out how to improve my mental and physical well-being in the job. Some didn’t work, but it’s equally as important to be honest with yourself when something isn’t working (like me getting up at 5:30 every weekday morning for a half hour gym session) than to try to hammer that square peg into the round hole! Everyone’s lives are different, and our brains all work differently. Figure out what works for you and run with it! If things can be changed where you work to reasonably accommodate this routine, and it will improve your mental well-being in the job, have that honest conversation with your manager. Most people are good at heart and will make reasonable adjustments for people if the benefits are clear.

On fitness…

·       If you’re a gym-goer, subscribe to a gym with 24-hour access. There are a few around now that aren’t extortionately priced, and this gives you more flexibility on when you can get some exercise in. Just be aware that you might not function quite as well after a dawn survey as you think if you’re planning on lifting heavy!

·       If you’re not a gym goer, save up for some at-home gym equipment or use body weight exercises. I bought some free-weights and a pink exercise bike (cheaper than the black one by about £15 and it really suits my complexion…). Body weight exercises are excellent if you’re really on a budget, and there are plenty of apps out there that will give you a body weight workout for free/minimal expense. You just have to be disciplined enough to do them regularly!

·       Sign up to a class. You’re probably not surveying every night, and on those nights off you might want to spend time at home which is absolutely understandable. However, when I was really struggling with my mental health, I started muay thai and ju-jitsu after a period of 3 years off. I was surprised how much getting physically humbled on a weekly basis helped my mindset improve! I also had regular interaction with people which in turn made me feel like my sociable self again. If you’re not a fan of martial arts try yoga (including ‘hot yoga’ which I hear is excellent), a running club, spin class or fitness “boot camps”.

·       Go walking with your team, either at lunch or as part of a dedicated outdoors team session. We use monthly walk-and-talk meetings where we take the entire team out for a walk somewhere local for a couple of hours, use it as a bit of CPD (plant ID for example), discuss the business, catch up on projects and just generally have a chat between ourselves outside of the office.

On sleep…

·       Meditate! Seriously, even 5 to 10 minutes a day can make a huge difference. I try to meditate for 10 minutes before I start work to get a clear idea of what I want to achieve during the day which helps me to stop firefighting with various tasks, then I spend 10 mins immediately before I go to sleep (usually after reading) consciously slowing my breathing and my mind down to a resting pace. If you haven’t meditated before try a guided session on YouTube, or apps such as Headspace or Calm.

·       Saying three things I’m grateful for in the morning really helps the day get off to a positive start and helps to put me in the correct frame of mind to tackle the day head-on.

·       If you work from home, have a designated space for work and DO NOT work from bed! Ideally your work and living spaces should be separated by a door. Once you’ve finished work, put your laptop and work phone away until the morning. Being able to switch off when working from home is absolutely vital to maintaining a healthy work/life balance.

·       If you don’t work from home switch your work devices off when you do get home and put them out of sight. It’s so easy to leave your work phone on and check texts or emails. Switching off at home is so important to getting important time with family/friends/partners/pets. Make sure you have systems in place whereby any out-of-office hours work is addressed before you leave so that everyone is clear on their roles and responsibilities.

·       Try to recoup lost sleep as close to the time you lost it as possible. I.e. for a dawn survey on Tuesday, try to get more sleep on Tuesday night rather than taking time off on Friday afternoon.

·       Before you go to bed, write a physical list of all the things on your mind and leave it downstairs. I used to leave mine by my bed, but I found I then couldn’t sleep because I thought I’d missed something off the list. Leaving it downstairs helped me to disassociate bed with list writing. I could then come back to the list after meditation and work out a plan of action.

To managers and directors, I cannot emphasise enough how important the culture you create in your company is to the mental well-being of your team. Keep your door open for chats and keep your eye open for emails. A lot of people suffering with mental health problems won’t necessarily speak to you face-to-face and may be more comfortable raising issues with an email. If you get an email related to mental health, respond to it immediately, it may be more important than you think.

Be flexible and creative in finding solutions that make your company an excellent place to work by listening to what your team needs and encouraging feedback in any way you can. Don’t dictate from the top and adopt arbitrary systems that don’t work in practice as these can cause significant levels of stress . Finally, create processes that can be flexible and adaptive, engage with the team you have and get their input into what is and isn’t working well for them.