We all know that Members of Parliament have a job that comes with a great deal of pressure.

Mentally, it can be tough going, and sometimes this results in MPs making mistakes that can unravel not just their career but the work they have done along the way too.

In this piece, The House speaks to several experienced Members of Parliament to gauge what mental health support, pastoral care or mentoring is available to help MPs cope with the strain.

Awareness

Among his portfolios, the National MP Matt Doocey is the Minister for Mental Health, a newly created role. A background of his own journey with mental health issues, as well as having worked in mental health before coming to Parliament, has helped him reach a particular level of awareness about how to recognise and manage issues that crop up.

Not everyone was comfortable talking about it, but awareness of mental health issues in the workplace at Parliament had come a long way in recent years, Doocey suggested.

“In a way we are not too dissimilar to many workplaces that are grappling with the issues around wellbeing and better mental health. I’m of the age that I can remember a time in workplaces where you were probably told to leave your personal issues at the door when you went to work, and people weren’t interested in what was happening with your life outside of work.

“But now we see quite the opposite, where it is expected that there is a level of understanding around how we support people’s wellbeing at work and maybe the pressures they are facing.”

For MPs, their workload can feel overwhelming at times: the long hours spent on the job, the sense of responsibility, and the turmoil of electorate work. Throw in ministerial portfolios and frequent media interactions, then pressures can build substantially.

MPs have some avenues available for help in the system. A first port of call that an MP can go to is usually the party whip (or musterer, as the Green Party calls it). Doocey was a whip for National when it was in opposition last term.

“It’s sort of like an operational management job, you work with the individuals and your caucus like a team, and help support them to understand where they need to deliver, but also there’s a pastoral care side as well. And quite often either the whip or senior MPs can be supporting other MPs about issues they’re facing,” he said.

“I think Parliament as a whole does very well as an organisation, provides Members of Parliament but also the hundreds of staff that work here with Employee Assistance Programmes, which are very big in other workplaces, where you can confidentially contact your EAP provider and receive some wellbeing or mental health support.”

He said ultimately it was up to the individual as to whether they wanted to confide in someone else about what they were going through. However, it is a sure bet that there are MPs out there who suffer in silence.

Reaching out

Grant Robertson delivers his valedictory speech.

The need to be able to access support in this area was highlighted by Grant Robertson last month when he sat down with The House for an exit interview on his final day as an MP. There were some resources to help for this sort of stuff, he said, but they were limited.

Robertson admitted that only relatively late in his 15-year Parliamentary career did he come to realise that the ability for MPs to have a counsellor, coach or some support person was very important.

“I can remember some Fridays when I was an electorate MP just being absolutely drained at the end of the day if I’d done a day’s worth of constituency work. And I’d often say to [my partner] Alf when I got home, ‘I just need some time to just get myself back’. I don’t think we necessarily provide the support that we should, or the easy access to that.”

Robertson faced some of the most intense political heat a parliamentarian could expect to receive in this country. And you may reasonably assume that it was his long stint as finance minister that really stands out. What he actually mentions is the “huge emotional toll” of work as an electorate MP, when constituents’ problems can become the MPs’ too.

“Often you are dealing with people’s worst experiences. And there are MPs in the past who in the face of that have not actually coped. And have done things that have actually really damaged their career, partly because they weren’t coping with the mental toll of the job.”

How did he cope? He refers to his “fantastic staff, they just carried so much of the load. But it was only really latterly in my career that I began to talk to someone external about how I was going. And it probably would have been good to come to that resolution a bit earlier”.

Knitting

Deborah Russ

MPs tend to find their own ways of dealing with the stress load. Now in her third term Labour MP Deborah Russell said the stress could be as heavy for experienced members as first-termers.

“I’ve seen plenty of my colleagues – whether they’re new or not – struggling. At times we all have our ups and downs, or times when you just feel you can’t do it anymore, or when there’s something else external happening and it just makes things worse.

“I think it’s a huge shock for a lot of new MPs as they come in. It certainly was for me. It helps to have a more senior MP to go and talk to and to debrief with. In my first term here I leaned a lot on [former Labour MPs] Ian Lees-Galloway and Michael Wood, who are both personal friends, and it was just great to go and de-brief with them.”

Russell said the public might largely be unaware of the level of vitriol that MPs were subject to, particularly on social media, and often driven by people who appeared to lack an understanding of what the job of parliamentarian was about. Women MPs, and particularly women of colour, are the most targeted.

“We know we have to be present on social media, it’s part of the job these days. But there’s a whole lot of nastiness that gets directed our way as well. So that’s difficult. And then emails that come in, because people can find us, and they’ll send us quite nasty emails. In some ways, you just brush it off, but every now again it will get to you,” she said.

“I’ve gotten better at making sure I take some time off to spend with my family. There are other things: I take my knitting into caucus. I don’t take it into the debating chamber, but if I’m sitting in the caucus for a couple of hours, I take my knitting in. It’s a nice calming thing to do.”

Listening

Coromandel MP Scott Simpson.

Coromandel MP Scott Simpson is the governing National Party’s Chief Whip. He notes that for many MPs, coming to work at Parliament is full of personal challenges.

“For instance, parliament has got its own unusual rhythm and timetable, and it has an unusual sitting calendar that requires people to be at Parliament and in Wellington for nearly 40 weeks of the year. That can be quite a challenge to people who are maybe not used to regular travel, who are not used to being away from their family or their personal support network,” he said.

While in agreement with Doocey that the mental health challenges for those working at Parliament were not all that different from those in many other workplaces, Simpson said the key difference for MPs was if they “make a mistake or something goes horribly wrong, then the glare of public screw is unyielding”.

“But there is quite a lot of support and certainly, I think, these days parties understand that and put in place as best they can the kind of support and robust systems that will ensure that people can get on with the job as best they can.”

Simpson and his fellow whips are “constantly talking and listening to colleagues about some of those situations that they might be facing personally, professionally or politically”. In the case of his party, National, there are 49 members to stay in contact with, so it is no small job. The key to providing the basis of support was listening, he said.

“I think that’s not necessarily any different to any other workplace environment or situation. Often we are quick to talk and not very quick to listen, and sometimes the listening is every bit as important as anything that we might say or do.”

MPs also say that forging connections and friendships with other MPs beyond their own party is another way of coping with the stresses. After all, criticising and attacking each other during Question Time or debates is only one part of what goes on in Parliament, and is not always enjoyable.

Matt Doocey said he had been encouraged by the cross-party MPs’ mental health group, which he established a few years ago with former Labour MP Louisa Wall and the Green Party’s Chlöe Swarbrick, the latter of whom was now chairing the group.

“We genuinely believe, not only do we have differences as parties, but there’s a lot of commonalities. And if we can agree long-term policy settings in mental health irrespective of the three-year cycle, then we’re really going to drive it forward, and I’m quite excited about that,” Doocey said.

By Johnny Blades of rnz.co.nz

RNZ’s The House is made with funding from Parliament’s Office of the Clerk

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