Last week I found myself watching a BBC TV report following the experience of medics working with critically ill COVID-19 patients in hospital ICU’s. One of the doctors reflected on the long-term impact on the mental health of NHS staff witnessing so much death and trauma. He stated that at some point there would be a ‘Psychological Reckoning’. Clearly such a reckoning may well occur for many of these brave medics. They encounter severe trauma and risk personal harm daily as they care for the suffering. I was struck by the phrase that may well describe a cultural phenomenon that we observe emerging as part of the legacy of Covid in societies around the world. In the UK we are certainly seeing early signs of this Psychological Reckoning in the lives of young people whose educations are being severely interrupted, are locked down, isolated from their friends and fearful for their futures. Requests for mental health services and support for these young people are going through the roof.
As I thought about this, I wondered how such a phenomenon might present itself in corporate environments. Workers are suffering loss — some sadly their actual jobs, others the working intimacy and support/interaction from colleagues. Many have lost their place of psychological safety and relief as their homes have been taken hostage by Zoom. Working from home has morphed into living at work! Others feel they are having to say goodbye to the futures of which they had once dreamed. At the same time, the background noise, that incessant and distracting hum in our lives has become a permanent anxiety focussed on our own or loved ones’ health. In such a context ‘Psychological Reckoning’ may well be a significant feature of our emerging working environment as this shared sense of loss manifests itself amongst our teams and employees.
Inevitably this will add to the already significant demands and expectations confronting leaders in the coming days. We will need to become informal and amateur ‘grief counsellors’ as we seek to support employees carrying unsustainable levels of loss and anxiety. Moreover, we will have to do this whilst burdened by our own sadnesses and worry. Let’s recognise that we are not properly equipped for such a task and should not pretend that we are. As we find ourselves confronting this ‘Psychological Reckoning’ reality and aim to support our people, here are a few things to consider.
- Their grief is real. We all have different and diverse coping mechanisms and thus whatever you think about the resilience or otherwise of those you work with, remember that to them the struggle is real. Words like ‘Don’t be such a snowflake’ do not belong in your conversations. Accept that whatever struggles folks present with, are real and need to be respected. Be open, listen and look like you are listening.
- Don’t deny your own struggles — find a safe place and secure relationship in which to process them. Being open about this without vomiting emotionally all over the team and adopting a ‘victim’ posture, can be one of the most powerful things you do. For someone who is struggling there are few things more depressing than working with colleagues who appear immune to similar challenges. Acknowledging your own challenge is critical for your own health AND helps ensure our teams genuinely feel ‘we are all in this together’.
- Choose your focus. If we spend our days addictively reading news apps or social media updates on infection rates, deaths, imploding economies etc, it will be no wonder that we end up feeling emotionally low and anxious. Read enough to be informed but not overwhelmed. Focus on life-giving things — your most precious relationships, those things you are thankful for, things you can control and influence, your known coping and capability strategies. Neuroscience has taught us that what we choose to focus upon largely shapes our perception of reality. When that focus is of a negative or anxious tone it compromises cognitive function. Focus on the positive.
- Choose your emotion. We are not victims of our emotions — we do have choice and agency over how we feel. Resist the temptation to catastrophize, ensure truth and reality inform your thinking, structure your time as best you can to avoid physical and mental exhaustion, stay connected with trusted colleagues, don’t isolate yourself, spend time doing things that you enjoy as self-reward. All these things can give increased mastery over our emotions.
- Choose your posture. Throughout our bodies are mechanisms capable of stimulating an endorphin response. Hence, what we do physically can have a profound effect on our emotional state. It is well known that regular physical exercise can facilitate this but also how we carry ourselves; how we sit, walking head up, shoulders back etc, all can contribute to positive endorphin responses. It is also interesting to understand the positive impact on others who observe us as leaders walking tall, carrying ourselves confidently, demonstrating positivity in the posture we adopt.
All these things can help us to be ‘response ready’ if and when we observe something of this mental health phenomenon turning up in our workplace. However, probably the most helpful thing we can do is to take the advice of Carl Jung who spent much of his life supporting those struggling mentally in their lives. He said, ‘Know all the theories, master all the techniques, but as you touch a human soul be just another human soul’. Good advice as we support our people confronting a Psychological Reckoning.