By Diane Lightfoot, Business Disability Forum
I’m writing this in first week of January, after the Christmas break and with my brain slowly emerging from the festive fog. After a very busy December (UNIDPD I’m looking at you!) the chance to ease in and relax into the new year is a very welcome one – but one which also seems like a guilty pleasure in a world that seems to value speed more than ever, pace above all.
Before Christmas I was talking to some of our Partners about mental health and the huge increase in focus on mental health over the last two years. That’s in no small part due to the impact of COVID but also the impact of workload, busyness and the ever-increasing demands that so many are under – for the NHS and our emergency services of course and, most soberingly, seen in the tragic rise in workers in the IT industry taking their own lives since COVID began. But there are many less extreme examples all around us as the pressure to be even more productive, to turn orders or customers around even faster, to exceed KPIs and SLAs and just to do more, more, more – and what affect is that having on our collective mental health?
We talk a lot about psychological safety, of the importance of having an environment where everyone can share how they are feeling and ask for the support they need. We talk about the importance of line managers spotting the signs that someone isn’t coping and having the confidence in being able to have the conversation and ask people what they need. These things are critical. But perhaps we need something more fundamental. A supportive and understanding line manager can make a big difference in how we feel about work and about our jobs. But a job which is too busy, too pressured and with unrealistic goals and deadlines remains so however nice our manager is to us. It struck me then too that the ability to change that is too often out of our control. It is not within any one person or even organisation’s gift to change the expectations of society, whether that is a customer who wants a same day delivery or response from a call centre.
That’s why I think we need a movement to slow down. Just because we can go faster, should we? I started work almost 28 years ago – pre-email as we know it now and certainly before Microsoft Office and Outlook became a central part of our working lives. Sending a missive to people in a different building – even on a different floor – meant writing a memo, photocopying attachments, highlighting names and distributing copies into pigeonholes. The equivalent of one email could easily have taken half an hour (or an hour on a Friday afternoon) to distribute – and days more before an answer was received – or critically, expected. (And if you are wondering what would happen if the message was urgent: for urgent things we’d have picked up the phone.). Now, the same communication can be issued in moments. But are we any better off, really? Speed begets speed and the expectation of response surely follows. I have had the same thought when working late in an actual office to finish off paperwork and put it on people’s desks – OK, I’m clearing my desk but how will it feel to them when they come in in the morning? And how quickly will they then feel they need to get it back to me?
If I sound anti-tech writing this, I’m really not. Tech has been literally a life (and business) saver during COVID-19 and far before. Rather, it is about resetting the expectations we have of each other and of ourselves and changing the pace in how we live our lives. It isn’t something any one person, manager, team, business or perhaps even country can do alone. Instead, it is going to take a concerted and conscious effort from everyone – a global movement – to be a bit kinder, a bit more thoughtful and to question – do I really need that now? A global movement sounds ambitious, but it’s not so long ago that recycling was a niche hobby and taking our own bags to the supermarket was unheard of.
Speaking of global… A global mental health crisis has been widely predicted and exacerbated by the pandemic. The Mental Health Foundation has just announced that the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 is loneliness – a topic which will resonate with many. Layer loneliness – whether that’s living alone or working alone with no respite or escape valve – on top of ever-increasing demands and pressures and you have a pretty toxic cocktail. If we don’t do something different now, where will we end up? It is only by working together that we can actually make a change.
I’ve written during the pandemic several times about a kinder and more human style of leadership and that has been great to see. Perhaps this is the next step.
Meanwhile you can access our Mental Health Toolkit, with our news resources: Employee wellbeing and resilience – Physical and mental health, Employee wellbeing and resilience – Talking about mental health, Having sensitive conversations, Making adjustments, Managing behaviour and conduct and Legal cases.