Two little words
I recently took a short lunchtime walk. It was a beautiful day and I looked enviously at those who had a little more time than I to enjoy the weather: the garden sun-bathers and the neighbours chatting over the fence. I hurried: I had to get back to work. I encountered an acquaintance on my way home who asked how I was. I by-passed my default ‘I’m fine,’ response and instead I said: ‘I’m really tired. Work is so busy’. Their reply was swift: ‘at least you have a job. You’re on full pay, aren’t you?’
Those two words: 'at least'. Immediately I felt ashamed: they were right. Then I felt guilty. Lesson learned: count your blessings; internalise and suppress any emotional candidness, any admittance to feeling ‘not okay’. Rightly, uppermost in our minds are the amazing NHS workers, those who have lost loved ones, those who have lost their jobs, or whose businesses have crumbled.
But… I am seeing a concerning layer of stress amongst those who are working - under intense pressure, some isolated and lonely, some managing child-care whilst juggling work tasks (and feeling like they are succeeding at neither).
I have listened to people who feel that they cannot say ‘I’m not okay’, because they are the ‘lucky ones’. Increased online communication has intensified a sense of competitiveness about productivity, whilst trying to 'make the best of it' during the pandemic.
I'm sensing a fresh epidemic of Imposter Syndrome: 'I have to be as busy, successful and productive as everyone else'. Working from home is causing increasing numbers to feel that they need to be ‘on’ and ‘available’ all the time, with no ‘backstage’ to retreat to.
There is a place for positive mind set, but not to the extent that individuals feel ashamed to admit that they are feeling overwhelmed, tired, sad or anxious. We risk driving mental health difficulties underground at a time when some progress was being made in improving openness and communication about this.
We must not go backwards in terms of speaking up if we are feeling low or stressed. We must not shame or stigmatise ourselves or anyone else who says that they are struggling, whatever their circumstances. If we do, we could unknowingly be perpetuating mental illness. Yes, practising gratitude is of huge benefit. So is listening non-judgementally.
Beware of Emotion Monopoly
And the person sunbathing in their garden? They could have been awake all night worrying about their employment future and spent all morning emailing recruitment agencies. So those of us who are working must not make assumptions about those who appear carefree.
Let’s not compete about who is finding this the hardest. Instead let’s try to step into one another’s shoes and connect with how someone is feeling, regardless of their situation. To a degree, the situation that an individual is in is not the point. What matters is how they are feeling at that moment. Otherwise, an unhealthy game of emotion monopoly is played.
What We Need
We need to put our personal frame of reference to one side to listen effectively (as all Mental Health First-Aiders know). This is called empathy and it helps us to look out for each other as human beings, rather than as categories of a pandemic fall-out. Embracing the bright side is fine. It is also fine to admit that, at times, you feel like it is rather dark, and you cannot find your torch.
We do not know peoples’ back stories. We do not know if the person who seems so ‘lucky’ has depression or is trying every app on the market to manage their anxiety. They’ve been furloughed. Aren’t they lucky! Maybe. Or perhaps they wish they were working and yearn for connection, purpose and structure.
The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week back in May was 'kindness'. Why not use it on ourselves as well as others? This situation is challenging for everyone, in different ways and for different reasons. Kindness to self and to others is a robust tool for good mental health: it allows us to validate a difficult feeling rather than mask or minimise it. Compassion, not competition.
Empathy is more vital than ever. And to quote Brene Brown, ‘an empathic response never begins with the words, ‘at least’.
Colette Norbury has been a speaker at one of Allen Associates’ regular Zoom HR Hubs. To find out more about this popular series of events for HR professionals, please contact Kate Allen at email@example.com
For more information from Oxfordshire Mind on Covid-19 and Wellbeing, visit: https://www.oxfordshiremind.org.uk/coronavirus-and-your-wellbeing-2/
Colette Norbury is Training Lead of the Workplace Wellbeing Training provision at Oxfordshire Mind. Colette creates and delivers mental health training to global companies, SMEs and organisations of all types, based within Oxfordshire and Berkshire. Her team’s mission is ‘ensuring what we do is of the highest quality and content to support people’s mental health.’
For details of Oxfordshire Mind’s comprehensive online packages, visit OXM Online Courses or for face-to-face courses, visit OXM All Courses. All face-to-face courses are individually risk assessed. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or ring 07394 566846 / 07593 382407 for more information.