by Rob Husband
A few months ago, while working away from home, I woke at 2am with an intense feeling of anxiety. It had never happened to me before, and I thought to myself: is this what a panic attack feels like? Whatever it was, I knew it wasn’t good. Over the last six months I’ve felt sustained ‘wobbliness’ at a level I’ve never experienced before, so perhaps it was a panic attack.
Over the years I have at times experienced mental health difficulties, but I count myself privileged to be where I am because I can be honest about my vulnerabilities. Space2think is a small organisation, and our culture is one of complete openness. I know this is in contrast to many other businesses in which it would be very complicated and uncomfortable to be completely truthful about what is going on inside your head.
People’s responses to my talk of anxiety, ‘wobbliness’ and possible panic attacks are fascinating. For some it is the trigger that is needed to remove their masks and to describe their own times of challenge and periods of uncertainty about their mental health. My experience seems to give them permission to talk. From others the subliminal message is clearly: I don’t want to talk about it. I just want you to carry on playing the role I’ve assigned to you. This assigned role might be coach, facilitator, trainer, friend, parent or company director.
It’s hard to stay in role especially when being in that very role is what brings some of the pressure and fragility. In the role of facilitator and coach I can often be holding a myriad of emotions and thoughts: confusion, anger, excitement, frustration, anticipation, hope and disappointment – to name just a few. I think this had become overwhelming.
As I move toward a place of greater understanding of my ‘wobbliness’ I have tried to share my experience with others: friends, children, work colleagues. This has been part of my rebalancing, and my need to be heard and acknowledged. When I was part way through what was probably my toughest week this year, I was explaining to a HR director who I was working with that I needed to approach my work with them differently as it had begun to impact me. She paused and then acknowledged that the work that I had been doing with their 40 managers must have been quite hard emotionally and mentally. It was great to be seen, heard and acknowledged as a human being, not just seen as fulfilling a role.
I know there is a risk to being vulnerable, and I’m always really impressed when people take that risk. I wonder what it is like in your organisation? Is it okay to have a conversation about struggles and mental health problems or do you feel you play a part – act out what is expected of you? Is it a case of six sessions with the workplace counsellor, a back to work interview and say no more? Or is your workplace an oasis of openness, honesty and authenticity?