We need to talk about mental health in Recruitment-Land

In my second year in IT recruitment in the UK (circa 1999), my desk was moved. Moving desks was a common practice in our office, designed, I guess to keep the office energised and allow Consultants to bounce off different personalities.

In my second year of recruitment, I was no longer considered a Rookie, and whilst still junior-ish, I was considered “experienced”, and certainly expected to know what I was doing. And I was definitely expected to be billing well.

But, truth be told, I simply wasn’t advancing or improving at the rate I should have been, or hoped I would. I just wasn’t.

I can point the finger of blame at any one of a dozen factors, but the reality was, I wasn’t making the cut. I wasn’t progressing. If anything, I was regressing, and I was definitely starting to consider if I even had a future career in recruitment.

Then, came the desk move.

I was sat directly in front a chap called Matt. Matt was your stereo-typical late-90s IT Recruiter. Loud, well-dressed, loads of energy, loads of confidence, and totally single-minded on his only objective in life which was to earn as much money as he possibly could.

Beneath his brash, impenetrable IT Recruiter persona, I had no doubt that Matt was a top bloke. But I never got to see the real Matt, as he became “Matt the IT Recruiter” at 8.30am every morning when he walked through that office door.

So, this is the dude that I was sat in front of, at the exact time when I was having serious concerns about whether I could even cut it in this industry.

Two more polar opposite career stages could not have been better matched.

Now, Matt didn’t really notice much about what was going on around him. Like I say, he was super-focused. Proper tunnel vision. If something was happening around him that didn’t help him make money, he paid it very little attention. It was head down, bum up, from dawn till dusk. This boy was on a mission.

And I dare say he didn’t notice me. At least for the first few weeks. I was just another face in his face. I was quite insignificant to him. And I was cool with that. Truth be told, I didn’t really want Matt to notice me.

I didn’t want to be caught out by the bloke who bashed out new business calls like he was ordering a pizza. While I struggled to get through one BD call without breaking into a sweat, having a mild panic attack and stuttering and stammering through the whole thing.

In short, I was the opposite of Matt. I was going backwards. He was on a mission. And I was running scared. Scared about losing my job, and scared about my future.

One day, after a particularly bad and unsuccessful BD call, I put the phone down, incredibly disheartened. I just sank down into my chair, and stared into space. For ages. Just sat there and stared. Trying to make myself invisible. Praying for the day to end.

Matt was a guy who never sat down. He was always on his feet, selling, pacing. The carpet around his desk had long since disappeared.

Somehow he noticed me slumping in my chair. He stopped what he was doing, sat down in his own chair, and leaned across and said “You alright, Watto? What’s going on?”

So, here I am, with a golden opportunity to say “Actually, Matt, you know what, Mate, I could really use some help…”

And that’s exactly what I should have said. But I didn’t.

What I did instead was, sit bolt upright, cleared my throat, gave it “the big ‘un” and said “Yeah, fine Mate. You?”

Pride and stupidity stopped me from asking for help when I had the perfect opportunity to get some. Why? Who knows? Was it shame? Was it embarrassment? Yep, probably both.

But it was also fear of being labelled or being seen as weak, as flawed, in an industry where only the strong survive. Where only the strong are supposed to exist.

Instead of grabbing that help with both hands, I instead decided to battle on, rudderless. And as you’d expect, things just got progressively worse.

Ultimately, after a couple of years, I moved to Sydney, a move that I now know was essentially me running away from what was already a failing IT Recruitment career.

Now, I’d love to tell you that this is where the story has a happy ending. You know… Got to Sydney, energised and loving life, and started making ridiculous amounts of money in the lucrative Sydney IT recruitment market of the early 2000s.

But because I still didn’t know how to ask for help, and was becoming an expert at burying my head in the sand, things went from bad to worse.

If anybody is reading who hired me between the years 2000 and 2003, I apologise, as you hired a dud.

Shame, embarrassment, male pride, and stupidity continued to stop me asking for help.

And (finally getting to the bloody point of this article), my failing career started to have a serious negative impact on my mental health. I was never diagnosed with anything, as this “stoic Northerner” would never dream of going to talk to a doctor about something as pathetic as feelings.

But reflecting on that time, I was pretty miserable.  Felt like a failure. Had very few moments of happiness in my career. Started to feel like there was no light at the end of the tunnel. I definitely had bouts of anxiety in the workplace, particularly when things would inevitably go wrong.

And it really didn’t need to be that way. I could have saved myself all that turmoil just by talking to people around me.

Why am I telling this story, in the public domain?

Well, because in my role as a forty-something Rec-to-Rec, I now see so many young people struggling to find happiness in recruitment, and I worry about them. I see things, and hear things, that make me think they’re going through something similar to me, and they don’t know how to get out of their funk. And they look lost, and they look scared. And I just wonder: Who’s looking out for them?

We, as an industry, have a responsibility to look out for not only the young people in our industry, but also the people who have been around a few years. We can’t just assume that the veterans are OK, just because they’ve got a few battle scars. We should all be looking out for one another, and not just ourselves.

We have to remember that people who are struggling don’t always have the courage or the common sense to put their hand up and ask for help. So it’s our job, and our responsibility to reach out to them.

This industry is prime breeding ground for mental health issues. This job is tough!

Yet plenty suffer in silence.

It reminds me of the sporting community, where there must be thousands of professional and amateur sportsmen and sportswomen terrified to tell their team-mates they are gay. Terrified of being ostracised for something that’s entirely blameless.

And you know what, if they did speak up, chances are they’d get nothing in response but love and support.

So, friends in the recruitment industry, I beg you…. Let’s keep an eye open for people you think might be struggling.

There’s probably a lot more of them than you might think.

PS: This story does actually have a happy ending. I finally came to my senses, realised I was a pretty crap IT Recruiter, tried my hand at Rec-to-Rec, and realised pretty quickly that I was OK at it. The rest (as they say) is my history! The other moral of this story might be… Don’t flog a dead horse!!!

Help information

If you need help please talk to friends, family, a GP, therapist or one of the free confidential helpline services. For a full list of national mental health services see yourmentalhealth.ie.

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • Pieta House National Suicide Helpline 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement) or text HELP to 51444 (standard message rates apply)
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)

If living in Ireland you can find accredited therapists in your area here:

Pete Watson
Pete Watson
Pete Watson is an experienced Recruitment Director, who has specialised in placing professional Recruiters into the recruitment industry for over 15 years. You can find out more about Pete’s work here.
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