As we continue to deal with COVID-19, we are simultaneously experiencing the tumult, outrage, and heartache associated with racism. No matter where we sit on the spectrum of emotions, it is impossible for our mental health to be unaffected. Because the topics at hand are emotional and highly-flammable, our responses to such are, as well.
Without the ability, willingness, and courage to sift and sort through the myriad of things going on in our heads and hearts, we suffer. Our mental and emotional health suffers. Our work, our health, our relationships, and our world suffers.
A recent article by the Harvard Business Review provides data:
“Since the outbreak of the pandemic, 75 percent of people say they feel more socially isolated, 67 percent of people report higher stress, 57 percent are feeling great anxiety, and 53 percent say they feel more emotionally exhausted.
It’s worth noting that these stats are related to the pandemic alone, not the larger complexities within which we’re living. It’s also worth noting that though we see words like “socially isolated,” “stress,” “anxiety,” and “emotionally exhausted,” many of us do not know what words to use to describe all that we’re feeling. And even if we do, we’re often loathed to speak them out loud.
Talking about our emotions, for many of us, is not a skill we’ve learned, nor has it been affirmed, even allowed – especially in the workplace. That gap, the empty space between what we feel and what we actually say in conversations and relationships, is in large part, what drives a lack of mental and emotional health.
I’m very familiar with that gap, believe me.
I was 40 when I entered grad school. Part of the program requirements included that I should be in therapy – a brand new experience for me!
Those 50-minute sessions over 3 years were the first times I’d ever listened to myself talk (outside of the chatter in my head or conversations with close friends). The first time I’d heard myself name out loud to anyone other than myself where, how, and why I was feeling pain. The first time I was really listened to with that level of intensity, even intimacy. It was transformational. And it was incredibly difficult. It still is.
Now I work at Fierce Conversations – an organization that trains others on how to have conversations that matter, that make an impact, that create and strengthen relationships that not only drive results but enhance all of life. Over and over we talk about emotions – why they matter, must be named, and how effective leadership depends upon such. This still is not easy – for us or our clients.
We’re not alone. Another article from Harvard Business Review says, “We hide emotions in an attempt to stay in control, look strong, and keep things at arm’s length. But in reality, doing so diminishes our control and weakens our capacity to lead – because it hamstrings us. We end up not saying what we mean or meaning what we say. We beat around the bush. And that never connects, compels, or communicates powerfully.”
We can do better.
Talking (out loud) about our own emotions and encouraging/allowing the same in those around us is a skill we must build and a priority we must hold.
We must create and sustain work (and family) cultures that value, even expect that people will name their concerns, anxiety, and fears just as easily as their delight, celebration, and joy.
If all we did was look at this through an ROI lens, we’d reach the same conclusion. A case study published by Forbes makes the following point:
“Evidence shows that investing in employee well-being can deliver bottom-line returns. And when companies approach well-being as a core business strategy, and not solely to lower employer healthcare costs, it can lead to measurable ROI through higher engagement, lower turnover, and better productivity.”
Did I mention that none of this is easy? Do I need to mention that the absence of this: is our denial or refusal of expressed feelings (and opinions, beliefs, thoughts), is at least in part, responsible for the trauma and pain we’re living in daily?
Because we’ve not allowed for and invited others’ articulated experiences and emotions, the gap has gotten wider and wider. Safety has been sucked out of far too many conversational contexts, and every kind of health – not just emotional and mental – is up for grabs: social, financial, organizational, cultural, environmental, global…the list goes on.
Steps to Take Care of Your Mental Health
No, not one bit of this is easy. But there are small, actionable steps we can take.
1. Be aware of your own emotions.
You have them, whether you talk about them, or not. What if you did? What are they? What, exactly, do you feel? When you feel these things, how does that impact your behavior – and subsequent results? Where and with whom can you name this without risk? As leaders, we cannot expect to create a safe space for others’ emotions (or emotional health) if we’re not aware of our own.
2. Ask about others’ emotions.
No agenda. No fixing. No talk of silver-linings. Simple questions asked genuinely go a long way: “What’s going on for you?” “How are you, really?” “When you consider those potential outcomes, what do you feel?” Then wait. Breathe through your own discomfort with the silence. Listen. And trust that if asked – with sincerity, consistency, and compassion – people will respond.
It takes consistency and commitment to have healthy interactions – let alone be healthy people. But to deny any of it is to our peril – individually and collectively.
Have healthy conversations with yourself. Have healthy conversations with others. Talk about health – emotional, mental, and any other forms! All of it defined by curiosity, openness, and grace.
A quote we repeat time and again at Fierce serves as mantra and motivation: “Though no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a company, a relationship, or a life [even the world]…any single conversation can.”
Some “trajectory changing” is what we most desperately need today – at work, at home, as a nation, as a planet.
Single conversations are what enable and empower all of this; single conversations that acknowledge, allow for, and invite (out loud) emotions – and emotional health. Simple, not easy. And truly, non-negotiable. One conversation at a time.