Wellbeing data released by the PFA on World Mental Health Day 2022 highlights the social and mental health challenges current and former professionals face, but also the work the union is doing to help its members.
Throughout last season, the PFA conducted player Wellbeing Workshops at clubs across the Premier League, English Football League (EFL) and the Women's Super League (WSL).
At the end of every session, members are invited to complete a confidential survey which covers their understanding of the workshop, but also asks them about their own mental health. The survey also gives players the opportunity to request further support from the PFA discreetly.
This data helped us provide direct player support and produce anonymised reports for the clubs. Importantly it will guide our future work and resource.
PFA Director of Wellbeing, Dr Michael Bennett, explained further: "These sessions are vital in creating a secure place to discuss mental health. The data shows that most players will be concerned about at least some aspects of their wellbeing.
"At the end of the visit, we give the club an anonymised breakdown of the issues impacting their squad, which we know from feedback is valued information. We can assist the club in ensuring that the players have clear pathways to access appropriate help.
"It may be there are players in the session who, based on their answers, are deemed at high risk of harming themselves and need immediate help and intervention. For others, it will be a follow call from a PFA staff member to get more information and see how we can best support them."
The data showed over 60% of players had been worrying about football-related matters in the month prior to completing the survey. Close to half of the members had experienced nervousness or anxiety during the same period, with 22% reporting severe anxiety, to the point of feeling afraid or that something awful might happen.
Dr Bennett is not surprised by the findings: "Elite sport can be a highly pressurised and competitive environment. Professional football is a results-based industry, for both players and staff, careers are on the line. Livelihoods are on the line.
"It’s a constant rollercoaster. A bad pass or a missed chance, your confidence goes. Score a goal, and the adrenaline is pumping. Players are often at the mercy of a short-term focus and factors outside their control, such as injury, transfer policies, and team selection. Any of which can have a dramatic impact on their long-term career.”
Predictably and in line with previous years, it wasn’t just football-related triggers that concerned players, with just under half the members surveyed reporting worrying about events outside of football.
Dr Bennett explained: “Players tend to live and work in a bubble, but it is important to remember they are just people who happen to play football. We tend to see the footballer and not the person. It’s my job to look at the person.
“Whether still playing or retired, they are just normal people. They will be equally affected by the things happening to everyone else across the country, relationship and family concerns, anxiety about the cost of living crisis – can I pay the bills? If you are in the lower leagues and on a short-term contract, by Christmas, you’re probably worrying about whether your contract will be renewed in May.
“Of course, you have a small percentage of players who earn vast amounts of money, but that can sometimes bring its own issues or can magnify other problems, but again, as a person, they are just like everyone else.”
The surveys are also an important tool for the players’ union to ensure we are across all the issues most prevalent in the players' day-to-day lives. Topics such as addictive or damaging habits, online abuse and worryingly 9% reported having experienced bullying as a professional player.
Dr Bennett said: “These are stark figures that illustrate how serious these issues are in the game. Based on this feedback, for instance, around bullying, we have adapted the sessions this season to learn more about what the players are facing. It could be peer-on-peer bullying, for example, from teammates in the dressing room or training ground. It could be by club staff or management. We are particularly concerned around transfer windows. We know that players can be isolated from their squads when a club is trying to force a move. We are often dealing with cases like this. Ultimately, whether it is the training ground or the stadium on a matchday, it’s a player’s workplace. They have a right to feel protected and safe at work. It feels obvious to state, but any form of bullying will have a lasting impact on an individual’s mental health.
“Having this type of approach helps us identify a wide range of topics and enables us then to take proactive steps on behalf of members. We are constantly evolving our sessions based on the information the players give us. This occurs at all levels, from academy players to first-team squads. Having this information on this scale from different age groups across both the men’s and women’s game, gives us a unique and up-to-date insight into player welfare right across English professional football. Importantly, we can also ensure that we are presenting players with clear pathways specific to the issues affecting them.”
Dr Bennett concluded: “We know that professional football is a privileged profession, but it is also an unforgiving and challenging industry.
“We can see from our sessions that more players than not are regularly dealing with difficult and stressful triggers during their careers. This is part of everyday life in football. It is the norm rather than the exception. As a sport, we need to do everything we can to make the environment an open one.
“If someone is struggling, we want them to ask for support. We all need to let players know that whatever their issues or concerns, help is available.”