It must be a long time since a mental health week was so immediately relevant to so many. To those worried about the health of loved ones. To those struggling with isolation. To those concerned about their financial future. Or those facing domestic abuse, family chaos, or unrelenting front-line pressure. The litany of challenges COVID-19 has laid bare surface all around us.
So, here I am. Working from home, with a good income. A happy enough family. A wife who freelances, so can flex her schedule. A good garden for London. A room that can now be called an office. On a street where for all of us the benefits of privilege have rarely been clearer. I’m not sure I’m qualified to write about mental health. But maybe that’s the point.
Because whatever your state of wellbeing, the last few weeks have stretched all of us to the limit. All of our skills have come through in so many ways: creativity, cross team working, agility…we can and do list them frequently, with pride. But one of the great truths is that under stress, strengths can go too far and become weakness. Creativity can lose focus. Cross team working can mean muddled responsibilities. Agility, chaos. And as a member of the CBI’s leadership team, spotting when our strengths become our weaknesses has been the biggest challenge.
I mentioned at our All Staff Conference that the emotion I struggled with most during lockdown was guilt. My guilt begins at home. Dinah cooking lunch, again. Home schooling, again. I’ve been in my office for 10 hours straight… I’m not going to be popular when I come downstairs… I’d better over compensate at the weekend, clean the house, do all the cooking, washing, children exercising. When managed, I see this as a strength – not taking my support network for granted. But then that guilt can turn to annoyance: don’t they realise how hard I’m working? And so on. That’s a weakness. But that’s home, I know them well enough to let off steam and sort it out. Mainly.
But for me the same emotions come through at work. Are we asking too much of each other? Do we actually know what it feels like, across teams? Do we have the grip we need to help people balance work and life in such strange times? Am I being a good manager? Or am I being too soft? Do I need to apply more pressure, use a bit more firmness? Would that actually help with clarity and reduce stress? These are the thoughts that for me, and I know so many people, circle round my head as I try to get to sleep or wake up in the night. Unproductive. Draining.
Minor stuff, compared to the real challenges so many face. But like all thought patterns, it can dominate if left unchecked. And the only real way of checking it? (There we are again, it so often comes back to this, doesn’t it?) Communication. Asking. And responding with truth.
So that’s a long way of saying: as we all face this immensely testing period, lets try to remember two things. Firstly, the care and kindness we invest in each other matters now, but also builds resilience as we recover from this crisis together. It’s been fantastic to see the lengths firms are going to, to show this care – something that may not have happened with this much thought in time past. The second thing to remember? We tell ourselves stories when we're trying to do our best - and we’re often far too hard on ourselves in those internal narratives. Openness and honesty are the only ways of making sure these stories don’t become never-ending works of fiction. So, let’s use that honesty with each other: it’s how we can be kind to ourselves in uncertain times.
To find out more about Mental Health Awareness Week and this year’s theme - kindness - head to the Mental Health Foundation website.