“This is the first time in seven months, I’ve seen all of you,” one of the participants shared as I went around our virtual room asking each person to contrast how they felt before our session began with how they were feeling now that we were wrapping up.
The group was comprised of tech analysts from a global financial company based in London. Headquarters and satellite offices in Paris, Singapore and elsewhere remain closed. Employees continue to work from home. And while I’m sure people have been interacting with each other, I became aware during our session that my request for everyone to turn on their webcams was a first. Until then, this had not been asked, so many chose to simply call, email or stay “off camera” when speaking on video platforms. Hence my participant’s striking observation that she had not “seen” her colleagues for all these many months.
“I didn’t understand how vital it was to see you again,” she went on. “I have been sitting here at my home digging a hole I didn’t realise I was in until now. It’s a deep hole. I’ve missed seeing you.”
I had been asked to run a purposeful leadership and well-being seminar and clearly it was needed. The woman’s poignant words rang out across the screen and touched my heart.
The time was 6:00 p.m. this past Wednesday and I had spent the entire day leading virtual session after session. I was tired. I looked forward to whipping up a quick dinner for my daughter Lulu and me and then settling in to watch season two of the Danish political drama Borgen.
“Fancy meeting over at Lemon & Duke? I can book us a table. Outside of course,” came the text.
I paused and thought of venturing to that stylish eatery in downtown Dublin, “No way, I’m exhausted. I’ve got Netflix on deck,” I imagined writing.
Then my participant’s words hit me again. This time in not in the heart but squarely in the stomach.
“Really?” I asked myself, “Are you going to pass up an opportunity to meet a friend face mask to face mask for a final, socially distanced dinner before Ireland’s second round of Level 5 Lockdown gets underway? Are you choosing to be alone on the couch over human interaction? Have you forgotten how to ‘do people’?”
As we come to the end of October – which interestingly included World Mental Health Day – and gaze out toward the next six weeks of another lockdown, please do this above all else:
Wherever you are, get off your couch. Do not try to go through this alone. Phone a neighbour, a family member, a friend, a colleague, a hotline. Someone. Get the support you need.
When I was a senior in college, I wrote a paper on the causes of homelessness for a political science class. I remember being surprised by the findings of a study that showed that the number one trigger for why a person landed on the street was not an increase in poverty, addiction or mental health issues, but was more directly connected to a simple lack of any support network.
If you’re reading this column, I’m not insinuating you’re on the precipice of losing your home, but like my participant, you might be unaware of the hole you may be quietly digging for yourself by yourself.
2) Prioritize mental health
Earlier this month, a survey published by TELUS International reported 75 pc of American workers have experienced anxiety as they work from home during this ongoing pandemic and strange world of uncertainty. Ninety percent of those surveyed said they find it difficult to “shut off” during the evening. Nearly half said their sleep is consistently interrupted and their mental health is deteriorating.
I imagine the numbers are similar here in Ireland. For these reasons, it’s critical companies take real effort to increase and expand their current range of mental health programmes.
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3) Turn those cameras back on and re-connect!
Maybe you’ve stopped your weekly virtual coffees or lunches. Try holding one again. Urge participants to turn their web cameras back on. Ask an external facilitator to lead a collective conversation around something that isn’t work related.
For instance, when I lead what I describe as my “Hour of Power” to help employees refresh, reset and recharge, I often begin by asking participants to recall an early time when they accomplished something. Maybe it was the first time they rode a bike or performed in a play. One person shared how he had overcome a childhood fear of horses to attend a riding camp. “Remembering that accomplishment reminds me of the mental strength I mustered then. And I can find that again.”
I finally texted back to my friend and said I would gladly meet him in town. We had a great dinner.
We humans are social animals. If we can’t have offices, we need gathering places. Outdoors. Online. On-camera. We need to see each other. We need to re-connect to our sources of strength.