·TACKLING MENTAL HEALTH STIGMA ON THE SPORTS FIELD AND IN THE WORKPLACE·

SPACE

By Créde Sheehy-Kelly, High Performance Psychologist and Creator of the Tackle Your Feelings Campaign

October 14th 2019

Mental health is a subject often associated with stigma, particularly among young males. In our society that idolises the macho ideal of physical and mental toughness, it’s no wonder that many people are still uncomfortable discussing their emotions and admitting to feelings of vulnerability.

When we think of the stereotypical elite athlete it conjures up images of mentally tough, physically strong, battle-hardened sportspeople. Emotional vulnerability is the last thing that springs to mind. However a Rugby Players Ireland member survey of male professional rugby players conducted in 2014 showed that mental wellbeing was an area of concern for many players. The results revealed that high percentages of players struggled with issues such as worrying about playing performance (67%), trouble sleeping as a result of this worry (74%) and relationship challenges (40%).

Tackling stigma

Tackle Your Feelings is a mental wellbeing campaign run by Zurich Ireland in partnership with Rugby Players Ireland and supported by the Z Zurich Foundation. The 7-year campaign is targeted at the general public and seeks to leverage the platform of professional sport to break down stigma and encourage people to become more proactive in looking after their wellbeing on a daily basis.

The campaign is the product of many years working with professional athletes to enhance on-pitch performance and off-pitch welfare. The concept for Tackle Your Feelings arose from seeing how professional rugby players and other athletes were more than willing to address emotional challenges that were not necessarily linked with their sport, once they realised the performance benefits that followed.

The key was that once athletes felt they had a ‘legitimate’ reason to talk about their emotional challenges, they were much more comfortable looking for support and working through them.

Ireland & Ulster Rugby Player, Jack McGrath, Tackle Your Feelings ambassador video

Proactivity

Rugby Players Ireland and Zurich recognised an opportunity to apply this logic on a much broader scale to change the landscape of mental wellbeing in our society. If we could make emotional vulnerability ‘acceptable’ on a national scale then it would open the door for more people to embrace the idea of proactively working on their mental wellbeing. A number of high-profile rugby ambassadors, male and female from all four provinces, stepped forward to publicly share their personal stories of dealing with emotional challenges and the strategies they used to overcome them.

Workplace

A crucial aspect of the roll-out of the campaign to the public was bringing this concept into the workplace. Many companies offer comprehensive employee assistance programmes and wellbeing supports, however if employees do not see the topic of mental wellbeing as being personally relevant, engagement with such supports remains minimal.

As part of the campaign, Zurich invited employees to step forward as ambassadors and to share their personal stories alongside rugby ambassadors in a series of panel discussions and practical workshops held across all Zurich office locations. As employees listened to senior managers and peers recounting periods of vulnerability and availing of counselling and other supports, it normalised the topic of mental wellbeing.

Employees reported feeling inspired by the events and, in the weeks following the panel discussions, the uptake of Zurich’s employee assistance programme increased by 400%. Similar events were held across almost 30 different corporate organisations in Ireland and Northern Ireland with equally positive results.

Tackle Your Feelings is now being replicated across Australia with Zurich Australia and the Australian Football League Players and Coaches Associations.

More information can be found at www.tackleyourfeelings.com