Who helps with the ’emotional toll’ of being an MP?

We all know that MPs have a job that comes with a lot of pressure.

Mentally it can be tough, and sometimes this leads to MPs making mistakes that can unravel not only their careers, but the work they have done along the way.

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

Conscience

Matt Doocey in November 2023 (file image).

Among his portfolios, National MP Matt Doocey is the Minister for Mental Health, a newly created role. The background of his own journey with mental health issues, and the fact that he worked in mental health before coming to Parliament, has helped him achieve a level of awareness about how to recognize and manage issues that arise.

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

“In some ways we’re not that different from many workplaces that are struggling with the issues around wellbeing and better mental health. I’m of an age where I can remember a time in workplaces where you were probably told to leave your personal problems behind the door open when you went to work, and people weren’t interested in what was going on with your life outside of work.

“But now we’re seeing quite the opposite: there’s an expectation that there’s some level of understanding about how we support people’s wellbeing at work and perhaps the pressures they face.”

For MPs, their workload can sometimes be overwhelming: the long hours they spend on their work, the sense of responsibility and the anxiety of electoral work. Add ministerial portfolios and frequent media interactions, and the pressure can increase substantially.

MPs have a number of options for help in the system. A first point of contact that an MP can usually go to is usually the party whip (or monsterer, as the Green Party calls it). Doocey was a whip for National when they were in opposition last season.

“It’s a bit like an operations management job, you work as a team with the individuals and your caucus and help them understand where they need to deliver, but there’s also a pastoral side. And often the whip or senior MPs can supporting other MPs on the issues they face,” he said.

“I think Parliament as a whole is doing very well as an organization. It offers Members of Parliament, but also the hundreds of employees who work here, Employee Assistance Programs, which are very large in other workplaces, where you can contact confidentially your EAP provider and information to receive some wellness or mental health support.”

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

Reach out

Grant Robertson gives his farewell speech.

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

Robertson admitted that it was only relatively late in his fifteen-year parliamentary career that he came to realize that the opportunity for MPs to have an adviser, coach or a support person was very important.

“I can remember a number of Fridays when I was an electorate MP and being completely exhausted at the end of the day after doing a day’s constituency work. And I often said to (my partner) Alf when I got home. “I just need some time to get myself back.” I don’t think we’re necessarily providing the support that we should have, or the ease of access to it.

Robertson faced the most intense political heat any parliamentarian could expect in this country. And it’s fair to assume that it was his long stint as finance minister that really stood out. What he actually mentions is the “huge emotional toll” of working as an electorate MP, when the problems of the voters can also become those of the MPs.

‘You often have to deal with people’s worst experiences. And there are MPs in the past who in reality have not dealt with that. And have done things that really hurt their careers, partly because they couldn’t deal with the mental issues. toll of the track.”

How did he deal with it? He refers to his “fantastic staff, they carried so much of the load. But it wasn’t really until the latter part of my career that I started talking to someone on the outside about how I was doing. And it probably would have been good to get to that resolution a little earlier”.

To knit

Deborah Rus

MPs tend to find their own ways to cope with the burden of stress. Now in her third term, Labor MP Deborah Russell said the stress could be as tough on experienced members as it is on first-year members.

“I’ve seen a lot of my colleagues – whether new or not – struggle. Sometimes we all have our ups and downs, or moments when you just feel like you can’t do it anymore, or when something else external is happening and it’s only making things worse.

“I think it’s a huge shock for a lot of new MPs when they come in. It certainly was for me. It helps to have a senior MP to talk and debrief with. In my first term here I’ve talked a lot about (former Labor MPs) Ian Lees-Galloway and Michael Wood, both of whom are personal friends, and it was just great to get to talk to them.”

Russell said the public may be largely unaware of the level of vitriol MPs were exposed to, especially on social media, and often driven by people who seemed to have no understanding of what the job of an MP entailed. Female lawmakers, and especially women of color, are the most targeted.

“We know we have to be present on social media, that’s part of the job these days. But there’s also a lot of nasty stuff coming our way. So that’s difficult. And then there are emails coming in, because people can us, and they send us some pretty nasty emails. In some ways you just brush it off, but every now and then it gets 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 to the caucus. I don’t take it to the debate hall, but if I’m sitting in the meeting room. When I’m in the caucus for a few hours, I take my knitting with me. It’s a wonderfully relaxing thing to do.”

Listen

Coromandel MP Scott Simpson.

Coromandel MP Scott Simpson is the Chief Whip of the ruling National Party. He notes that for many MPs, joining Parliament comes with personal challenges.

“For example, Parliament has its own unusual rhythm and timetable, and it has an unusual meeting calendar that requires people to be in Parliament and in Wellington for almost 40 weeks a year. That can be quite a challenge for people who may not be used to regular travel, who may not be used to being away from their family or their personal support network,” he said.

While he agreed with Doocey that the mental health challenges for those working in Parliament were not that different from those in many other workplaces, Simpson said the key difference for MPs was that if they “make a mistake Or if something goes terribly wrong, the blinding public screw is unyielding”.

“But there is quite a bit of support and I think the parties today understand that and are putting in place as best they can the kind of support and robust systems that allow people to get on with their work as best as possible. .”

Simpson and his fellow whips are “constantly talking and listening to colleagues about some of those situations they may face personally, professionally or politically”. In the case of his National party, there are 49 members he has to keep in touch with, so that’s no small task. The key to providing a foundation for support was listening, he said.

“I don’t think this is necessarily any different from any other work environment or situation. Often we talk fast and we don’t listen so fast, and sometimes listening is as important as anything we can say or do.”

MPs also say that forging ties and friendships with other MPs outside their own party is another way to deal with tensions. After all, criticizing and attacking each other during Question Time or debates is only part of what happens in Parliament and is not always fun.

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

“We are sincerely convinced that as parties we not only have differences, but that there are also many similarities. And if we can agree on long-term mental health policy, regardless of the three-year cycle, then we’re really going to move it forward, and I’m pretty 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