To mark World Mental Health Day, which is on October 10 every year, our Director of Knowledge, Shimrit Janes, shares an update on how life and work has been since her last post about mental health in 2019, and provides some ideas for creating your own mental health toolkit.
How are you feeling today? Really feeling? Take a moment to get a real sense of what’s going on in your body and in your mind.
Where do your thoughts go to if given the time to wander? What physical sensations are you experiencing, and what could they indicate? Anxiety? Relaxation? Fear? Contentment? Anger?
I ask, because, well… [waves hands in general direction of the world]. Take your pick.
2020 has been… well, you know how it’s been
Since I wrote my post, 10 ways to combat the dark side of working from home (when life is imploding around you) in May 2019, all our lives have changed in ways that would have been unimaginable a year ago. I had no idea when DWG published that post that I’d be sharing it again just under a year later as a way of providing support to people having to work from home consistently for the first time, not out of choice but necessity. For many, it feels that not only are our lives imploding around us, but that the world is now exploding too.
It probably won’t be surprising for me to share with you that 2020 has seen my own mental health dip again, as it has for many. During lockdown, I proactively self-referred for some counselling support from a local service for various reasons, after recognizing much earlier than last time that I was at risk of crashing again. In addition, like many others during this time, I’ve found that my hormonal cycle has gone out of whack on more than one occasion, leading to temporary depressive-like symptoms more times in the last six months than I’ve experienced in previous years put together. There have been tears, sleepless nights, crazy “COVID dreams”, moments of grief, self-reckoning and much, much more. Being robbed of the normal physical contact that I’d have – hugs and coworking with friends and family – has exacerbated everything, too.
The toolkit that I shared in my original mental health post has served me well during this time, thankfully. I’m privileged in that I have the resources and network, both personally and within DWG, to have my relatively mild mental health issues supported. The flat I share with my partner is well-suited to us coworking, as his normally office-based work life has for the moment become more “hybrid” in terms of his work habitat. We’ve not been financially impacted, so far. Our physical health is good. I don’t have the “technostress” or “Zoom fatigue” that many others have, something explored in more detail in our upcoming paper on how to manage technostress in work.
But despite all this, it’s been hard. And if it’s been hard for me, I can imagine it’s been hard – and most likely harder – for others, as everything that’s happened in the past year across so many different elements of society has unfolded.
In amongst this, I decided to take a Mental Health First Aid course, to qualify as a Mental Health First Aider, primarily with the intention of being able to better support my own friends and family. I learned so much, however (and thankfully passed!), that it’s impacted other areas of my life too, such as how I understand both myself and my colleagues within DWG.
Breaking the stigmas of mental health
Mental health and wellbeing have come to the foreground of the conversation about our working lives in ways that many have been trying to advocate for years. Colleagues, managers, leaders are opening up to each other in ways that previously felt unsafe or unprofessional. The word “empathy” is increasingly invoked, capturing what many feel they both need themselves, and yearn to give to others.
In DWG, we’ve seen this manifest itself in so many different ways across our various communities.
Internally, conversations between DWGers have become even more supportive than before. Many of us are having more virtual one-on-one “coffees”, to check-in with each other, both planned and ad hoc. I myself have had many a conversation over the last six months with colleagues where we’ve shared with each other how we’re doing about [waves hands in general direction of the world]. Tears have definitely been shed at various times, by me and others, over concerns about how overwhelming everything is, the impacts on us and our families.
New rituals have emerged between us, helping us keep connected in different ways. Ultimately, we’ve needed to lean on each other for emotional support in ways that are new even to us, an organization where working from anywhere has been the norm for almost ten years now.
This openness hasn’t negatively impacted our work. If anything, it’s made it easier to collaborate and support each other, as well as have harder conversations.
With our members, questions and concerns about the wellbeing of their own colleagues have been discussed many a time, in our Hub Chats and online sessions. In the absence of our normal in-person meeting schedule, we’ve all found new ways to connect with one another to create the safe space in which individuals can share their challenges and experiences. In particular, our new Digital Fika format has helped in this area, an online two-day event where our members can gather with us and speak both 1:1 and have wider conversations to share learnings, questions big and small, and simply be together.
And then, during DWG24, our 24-hour online festival, questions related to human connection, empathy, relationships and wellbeing came up time and time again, regardless of where our guests were located around the globe. As we moved from Europe, to the Americas, to Australia, Singapore and elsewhere – all were sharing the mental health toll of the situation many now find themselves in.
One of the biggest things I learned in the Mental Health First Aid training was the huge cost of stigma. Not feeling that you’re able to share or discuss your mental health challenges, particularly in the workplace but also in wider society, has a monumental impact. How others judge you based on your mental health, and how you internalize those judgements to then judge yourself, plays a frightening role in your wellbeing and resilience. More than that, these experiences also impact to what extent you feel you belong and are included. When intersected with issues such as race or gender or sexuality or class, mental health also takes on a whole other dimension, embedding the need for support and treatment not just in the individual’s experiences but in the oppressive systems that are impacting them.
If the conversations we’re experiencing in DWG’s communities are anything to go by, that stigma is now hopefully starting to be broken down within the working world. We all collectively still have a long way to go. But the first steps seem to have been taken.
What’s in your mental health toolkit?
I’m not going to repeat the elements of my mental health toolkit, as they’re listed and accessible in my 2019 post.
I will say that I’d now add another: having work friends that you feel safe with, and with whom you can be honest about how you’re doing. While my friends and family have been supporting each other, having that same level of support from my work community has been – and has become – invaluable. While that was always there, relationships have definitely deepened for many during this time.
And so for you, dear reader, I pose a task for you to complete:
What’s in your mental health toolkit?
Take the time to think through what practices help you feel safe, supported and connected to your mental health and wellbeing, both day-to-day and in the harder times of need. Actually document them, in a medium that makes sense to you, and is easily accessible. You could even have a box containing items that you practically use, or are reminders of activities. My blog post has served as my own documentation, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve reread it. Each element has kicked in over the last six months, from telling myself to “Get up” in the morning, to restarting the practice of bullet journaling, to “the talking cure”.
Samaritans, based in the UK, has released its own Self-Help App, aimed at helping you create your own toolkit, which I definitely recommend for anyone looking for somewhere to start. A common tool in mental health practice is for people to create their own Personal Safety Plan. This can serve as a crucial survival line in times of mental health crises, where you may not have the ability to think clearly about what you need to help you feel safe. It’s based in the cloud, so is accessible from any device, and can be easily bookmarked to your phone and browser.
As part of that toolkit, I’d also heartily recommend learning more about mental health in general. It’ll help you understand yourself better and be kinder to yourself, as well as give you the tools to support others and be more empathetic towards them. This could involve learning about the different mental health problems that exist and their symptoms, and how to start a difficult conversation with someone, either about your own mental health or theirs. There are lots of excellent, free resources online, as well as free, 24/7 confidential helplines and text support and community-based services. National healthcare should also hopefully be able to provide some level of support.
In the UK, we have, for example:
- Mind, which has extensive online resources, as well as its own helplines
- Samaritans, which offers online resources, and a free phoneline
- Various mental health networks and resources specifically for Black people, such as Black Minds Matter UK and Therapy for Black Girls
- MindOut, a service for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer mental health
- CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), which is particularly focused on supporting men at risk of suicide, as well as their families and loved ones.
And many more.
What’s in your organization’s mental health toolkit?
Beyond your own personal toolkit, more is also being done by organizations to break the stigma of mental health in the workplace, including elements such as training, learning, the provision of mental health first aiders, and internal awareness campaigns.
You can work to find out what your own organization is doing and, if you’re able, get involved in becoming an advocate for mental health and wellbeing. Something as simple as sharing your own stories can help break down barriers and help others understand they’re not alone. And more can also be done at an organizational level to create an environment of psychological safety where people can feel supported, rather than punished or stigmatized for their mental health.
A great example of this was seen on DWG24 in our final hour, where Clare Bowers from the Zoological Society London (ZSL) told the story of how their use of Yammer had encouraged people to share their own mental health stories and experiences with each other.
At a time when we’re spending less and less time physically co-located, but our individual resilience is being tested on a daily basis, colleagues learning how to support each other, often remotely, is more crucial than ever. How to spot warning signs, getting to know each other on a deeper level, creating safe environments in which people can be honest about how they’re coping: all can help create a work environment supportive of mental health and wellbeing challenges.
If you’re not sure where to get started, there are again some great resources online, such as:
- Implementing Mental Health First Aiders: Guide for employers
- Mind’s resource on Mental Health at Work
- How to support mental health at work, from the Mental Health Foundation.
Everyone has different mental health needs, symptoms, levels of resilience and triggers. What works for me may not work for you. My own “red flags” (such as going quiet and off-grid) may not be someone else’s. Getting to know each other on a more human level within our work communities can help us all better support each other, and put the guardrails in place for each other so that, ultimately, we can all work to the best of our ability, while feeling safe and supported. If there’s one thing that 2020 so far has taught me, it’s that we’re capable of great things together, once the stigmas of mental health start to be torn down.
Once you’ve created your mental health toolkit, or if you already have one, if you’re happy to share it with us then please do. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can then write a third blog post, anonymously sharing the practices that others follow to help them with their own mental health. Together, let’s help #BreakTheStigma.