Days of sunshine and grace: John Pilger remembers an Australian swimming legend

Sep was tall, handsome and languid, with a laconic half-smile like Errol Flynn's. 

The great American athlete John Carlos once described "those people of grace who raise sport to something more than a game". Carlos and Tommie Smith had stood with their black-gloved fists held high on the winners' podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, damning racism and poverty. They were men of grace. Sep was very different, but he had the grace.

Sep died the other day. He was 88, but I imagine him only as a dashing figure. Tall and languid, with a laconic half-smile like Errol Flynn's, he would appear on Bondi Beach dressed in fashionable white bathing trunks and navigator sunglasses and surrounded by bikini-clad beauties, one of whom (usually Lexie) would apply his favourite coconut oil. And when the moment was right, he would dive from the perilous bogie hole into the fist of a wave as it raced towards the cliffs, then crest it before it struck the rocks. An accredited legend of North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club, he was one of the greatest surf swimmers and swimming coaches Australia has produced. As someone wrote, he was "Don Bradman's equivalent in the water".

I knew about Sep from a very early age because we had both attended Wellington Street School. He and other Bondi lifesavers had taken part in a courageous mass rescue of a kind that happened when the first non-swimming immigrants arrived in Australia and embraced the surf and its dangers. My headmaster had pinned up newspaper pictures in which Sep wore his signature shades. He looked good.

To appreciate Sep, you need to glimpse Australia in the 1940s and 1950s. Apart from enclaves of old money, Sydney was a poor city and Bondi, where I grew up, had faithful copies of the back-to-back houses of northern England which ensured that the diamond light of the great south land seldom intruded. In the long, hot, humid summers men wore serge suits, and an evangelical primness was upheld. But the beach was different. An English visitor, one Egbert T Russell, noted in 1910 that "one of the strangest features of Sydney surf bathing to the stranger is the casualness of the sexes on the beaches. They are partially naked, but not so unashamed as to notice the fact." Swimming up and down the green pyramids of the South Pacific, eyes half closed from the salt spray, was the greatest fun of all.

On Saturday mornings, Sep would sit on his coach's throne on whitewashed rocks overlooking Bondi's ocean baths. His female entourage would strap kerosene cans to the backs of the youngest kids - water wings had yet to be invented - and put the rest of us into flippers. Sep was the first to do this. He later said that the great American coach Bob Kiphuth, who reputedly could not swim a stroke, had told him his secret: "Ninety per cent personality and 10 per cent ability." What I remember was patience and kindness, the antithesis of the brutality that was to consume so much of sport in the years ahead. In 1952, Sep was appointed an Olympic coach and in the same year he married Lexie, who was famous for wearing one of the first ultra-brief bikinis, which she made herself out of towelling. She was also brave, diving with Sep off the bogie hole. Four years later, at the Melbourne Olympics, Australian swimmers won eight gold medals. You could spot the freestyle that Sep taught or inspired. When the elbow lifted, the fingers skimmed over the surface of the water. The result was shoulder power rather than arm movement. "Get that right and you'll swim like a dolphin," he said to me. The day I got it right, I managed a second to Murray Rose, who would go on to become an Olympian. We were 11 years old at the time, and Murray finished almost a pool length ahead, but it gave me a story for life. Thereafter I graduated to any pool I could find all over the world.

My Michelin-starred best pool on earth, as regular readers will know, is the North Sydney wonder pool, which lies spectacularly beneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge across from the other-worldly Opera House. Built in the 1930s and adorned with art-deco dolphins and frogs, it is known as the wonder pool because no fewer than 86 world records have been broken there, itself a world record. Once, a sculler and a swimmer raced over its 50 metres and the swimmer won. Those who knew about swimming cleaned out the bookies.

Speaking of bookies, Sep was also celebrated as an illegal SP bookie. SP meant starting price and in horse-race-crazed Australia, the pre-Tote bookie was as important as your mother. He received supplicants with bad watches and silver cufflinks, he knew secrets and he even paid out. I suspect my father dealt with Sep on urgent non-swimming matters during the racing season. They both drank at Billy the Pig's and might have stepped out of Damon Runyon - my dad in his snap brim hat, Sep with his shades and dolls. I would say they both had the grace.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks