I was asked to contribute to the discussion on mental health in the workplace as we all start 2021. “What are your top tips for mental wellbeing in 2021?”
Were you desperately waiting for 2020 to end, somehow thinking if you got to the end of it, the new year would magically make things different? The stress of working in constant change – remote, in the office, back to remote, schools open, schools closed, visiting family, bubbles, not visiting family, travel, no travel and so on – would all miraculously cease with the turn of the calendar.
There should have been no surprise when we woke up on January 01 to find there were still restrictions on movement, the virus was still present, and we were just as concerned as we had been the day before. New year resolutions seeming even more futile than usual, unless it was to try and lose the ‘lockdown weight’.
Studies done by the World Health Organisation (WHO), Deloitte, PWC and many more before 2020 highlighted the importance of mental health and well-being in the workplace. This was already a subject in the media, visibility in the UK with the “Virgin Media mental health marathon” in London 2017, supported by the charitable work of the Royal Family, promoting mental health charities such as MIND, Samaritans, CALM and many more. The subject of mental health has been raised and supported by charities, celebrities and social media for a few years now. Then came the unexpected, a global pandemic which changed everything and even those of us lucky enough not to have any issues with mental health in the past have been exposed to situations of immense stress.
I speak from my experience as an IT professional, there are many other occupations that have been affected, but I will stay with what I know. For most of us of working age, in ‘good IT jobs’, in the UK, this is our first experience of such a worldwide crisis – we have experienced epidemics in the past, AIDS, SARS, Foot & Mouth, but none that has had such a global influence and caused such universal upheaval. We in the UK have not been affected by conflict and war (although many have across the globe); we have experienced some economic crises, but nothing on such a large-scale affecting us in all aspects of our lives. We have been safe, society has been protected, we are in the affluent ‘first world’ economy. I’m not implying there have been no struggles, but looking back with clear 20/20 hindsight, we have to recognise that we have, on the whole, been fortunate, perhaps even privileged. Those of us who have had good careers, good education and a generally comfortable lifestyle (by which I mean we have had access to clean fresh water, shelter and food), have been shielded from some of the horrors of the world.
Then comes 2020 and COVID-19 Corona virus.
We have had to deal with the changes and pressures of a volatile situation, affecting everyone in terms of work, social interactions, and grief. Losing contact with loved ones, being physically distant from family and friends, creating different relationships with our work colleagues. Some of us have relished the solitude (I have spoken about the introverts before), others have been frustrated by the lack of contact and stimulation (our extroverts) but all of us have had one thing in common – this has had an effect. Suddenly thrust into an even greater spotlight, IT provision suddenly became the glue that held the communication of society together. We became frontline staff, not in the magnificent healthcare worker way, but quietly in the background, managing the survival of businesses and education and families and worldwide communication. The pressure to succeed, to maintain the status quo, to increase provision to meet the new demands of our organisations has been intense. On top of that work pressure, new experiences of working remotely for some, or the need to continue to mix with others in the workplace have created their own personal challenges of safety and wellbeing. And it has been relentless.
Whatever industry you are in, you will have experienced your own, similar challenges. Perhaps you have had to cope with having no work, no purpose, perhaps feeling that your role in life is superficial and worthless. Maybe your frustration has been that the perception of your role as worthless is incorrect and your valuable contribution to society has been ignored. Perhaps it has been more fundamental and has been an extreme economic crisis, with no work, no money or furlough wages not covering your requirements. Feelings of letting down your family, of being out of control and overwhelmed by the stress of money, family and work worries. Maybe you have been fortunate, been able to continue working, safely, unaffected financially but even then, you will have been affected by the changes in society and the safety and health of you and your loved ones.
What is the impact of all of this – we ALL need to be aware of our mental as well as our physical health. What can we do? Should we just hope that ‘they’ (you know, the ones in charge) should do something for us? Organisations offering ‘point solutions’ of Monday Mindfulness, Wednesday Yoga and some lovely apps may make you feel like you are failing to manage your mental health because these things are not working for you. They are all tools we can use, but we need to have a comprehensive and encompassing approach as part of our organisational culture. That is a topic for another day. Until that happens, which you can help to make happen, by the way, what can we as individuals do for ourselves?
We can develop resilience; we can work on our own mental health. This is a little like that instruction we all used to hear when we went on an aeroplane (remember those days?) – “please fit your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs”.
Your mental health oxygen mask is resilience. Learn the techniques that allow you to experience without being overwhelmed; to respond through choice not reflex and habit; to accept what you can and cannot control; to adapt to change with confidence. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help and talk to people about your feelings. Tell your boss, share your experience with your colleagues, even if they can’t help, they will be a support just because they know that you need some space. Seek help from professionals, counsellors, and your GP if necessary.
To give you a start, here are my top tips for helping yourself – in an acronym – R.E.S.I.L.i.e.N.C.E. #TopTips for the individual in 2021 – love yourself
Rest is essential
Engage with your feelings
Self-care needs time
Individual response to stress, no comparisons to others, your journey is your own
Listen to your inner voice (not the one telling you to run amok with an axe)
Improve your awareness of your needs
Experience your feelings fully, acknowledge them, even the tough ones
Necessary, you can’t do without this, don’t ignore your mental health
Change your behaviour, your response, recognise that you can choose how to behave
Exercise the behaviour until it becomes a habit (ha! you thought it was going to be go for a run, didn’t you!), embed it, it that is resilience