Last night I was fortunate to be invited to speak at the Nottingham Cafe Scientifique meeting, to coincide with World Mental Health Day. Despite just reading the worst review I’ve had of anything I’ve ever done (you can see it on the Cafe Sci website… I knew from the outset it was likely to be a tough audience) I hope that some of it did help people to think about the things that are based in sound research and can help all of us (not just the ones who have a diagnosable mental health problem) to boost our resilience and cheerfulness.
Some of the discussion was around whether life has got better or worse over recent decades, given the economic situation and the pace of life that many of us experience. I think what’s tricky is the amount of effort we have to make individually to work out what works for us (at work and elsewhere) and how to strengthen what does work as well as limit our exposure to what diminishes our mental health. In the past the structure of our lives was determined by the seasons, or a church led culture, or the limits of the technology including travel and communications that we lived with.
But now it is possible to do almost anything at any time if we want to. Or, of course, if we don’t want to. One person told me about a new boss that a friend of hers has who regularly emails her staff at 4.30am. I would guess that this arises from someone who finds they can’t sleep so they “might as well” get on with some emails whilst work thoughts are spinning around their mind. However, the impact this has on their own and their team’s well-being is likely to be significant.
We can’t necessarily influence what our boss will do if they can’t sleep at night – but we do have some choices about how to respond, even though it is very easy to mindlessly get sucked into behaving in the same way ourselves. The evidence is that sleep, and taking breaks from work to actively engage in something else, is highly beneficial to our mental health, and to our performance at work. The evidence is also that people are often unaware that their performance and mental health is being adversely affected by not taking sleep and breaks.
It’s that kind of awareness I hope to help raise for my clients and readers (and last night’s listeners), because this puts us in a better position to do something about it.
Feedback is also part of the information we all need about how we are performing. We might think we are doing ok whereas we could be doing things in a better way. Or we might keep trying new approaches whereas what we’re actually doing is fine. One of the areas I have looked at in the book is how much more effective (and much better for our mental health) it can be to give and receive face to face feedback than feedback that relies on the emotional distance of emails for instance. One of the chapters in the book is entitled How to have a conversation. So, for example, if I was inaudible last night, I rather wish someone had asked me to speak up at the time rather than wait to tell me via the internet the next day. It might have saved the person concerned having a clearly not enjoyable evening and saved me the disappointment of not having addressed the concerns in the room at the time. Quite probably better mental health for both of us.
The feedback wasn’t easy to read for me of course, but the manner of its delivery is a great illustration of the communication challenges most of us face at some time in the modern world. I can learn from it for future presentations. And – possibly more importantly – I can be reminded of how important it is for our mental health to connect directly with people to give feedback, even when that feedback is negative, and it’s not easy to give or receive. I can’t influence how others give me feedback but I can think more carefully about how I might give feedback to others in presentations that I attend for instance.
It takes ongoing effort and awareness to maintain mental health. For all of us. I hope World Mental Health Day has helped to remind people of that.