Originally published in HRB, August 16th 2019
Being passionate about your job is great — but there are limits. If you become so wrapped up in your professional identity that setbacks at work affect your self-worth, that’s a problem. Keep a healthy perspective by distinguishing who you are from what you do. Your job is just that — a job. Maybe you’re a “senior analyst” at work, but in life you’re much more than that. Your worth as a person is not tied to your position on the org chart.
So when someone criticizes a report you wrote or a presentation you gave, remind yourself that they’re criticizing the report or the presentation, not you. By shifting your perspective this way, you build resilience and protect your self-esteem from challenges and even failures (which are inevitable, after all). And having a strong sense of self, in turn, will help you perform better in your role.
We have worked in the field of resilience for over 20 years. We have helped our clients understand how resilience fails, how to bounce, and how to sustain an effective integration between work and life. Dealing with our mental illness reality demands a specific, tailored response.
In 2017 we launched our first programmes to help leaders and managers increase their skill and confidence to support mental illness and recovery in their businesses. The original article is here.
Find out more about our mental health training programme options and toolkit.
Since that time we have worked with hundreds of leaders to refine and deliver a simple, cost-effective solution. The situation is more pressing:
- Mental illness is firmly in focus at all levels of society
- Attention disorders, isolation, anxiety and depression are common
- Health & safety legislation demands that business pays attention
- Work is increasingly complex, fluid, uncertain and pressured
- People are struggling to keep key parts of their lives integrated
- Disruption in many forms is an ever-present threat
- Leaders very much want to learn how to lead for mental wellbeing
This is the basic course structure which can be run through workshops or our Resilience App digital training. It includes a comprehensive workbook.
Find out more about our mental health training programme options and toolkit.
For a quick insight into the course:
Quick Facts on Mental Illness at Work
- $1 trillion cost to global productivity and affecting 615m
- 50% increase in depression and anxiety (1990- 2013)
- ROI from mental health programmes is $4+ for each $1 (npv)
- 25% of students (13 to 18) affected by anxiety
- Conflict, impulsive outbursts, bullying…
- Social withdrawal disorder and autism increasing (1m/year)
- Substance abuse has a significant mental health overlap
- Depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dementias…
Our conclusion is that a basic understanding of the key concepts that underpin mental illness is necessary. Further, we recommend that every leader and manager can recognise the key signs of common conditions. Let’s start with the common conditions:
Depression, diagnosed as unremitting sadness, loss of confidence, confusion, appetite and sleep disturbance for two weeks is the most common. Suicide takes 800,000 lives per year and depression has a massive cost to productivity. Sadness prevails and it is a form of “freeze” reaction
- Physical signs: loss of energy, disturbed appetite, sleep disturbance
- Emotional signs: sadness, despair, tears, joyless and loss of hope
- Cognitive signs: confusion, self-doubt, poor memory, indecisive
Distress first presents with physical symptoms such as tension, respiratory, cardiac, abdominal or skin disorders. When overwhelmed by pressure, we experience anxiety and worry. We all feel anxiety (fear) at times. It is a “flight” reaction.
- Distress symptoms – body, sleep, weight
- Emotional outbursts – tears, panic, anger
- Hyperventilation – sighing, breath-holding, mouth breathing
- Persistent worry about the future
- Health issues may be present
- People may present as “not coping”
3. Hostility Disorders
Given the apparent increase in anger in society, this is an important condition. This is the “fight” response and may present as:
- Angry outbursts, shouting, swearing and calling out others
- Passive aggressive resistance and resentment…..
Clearly, no mental illness suddenly presents. It is almost always a process of progressive failure. It starts in the mind, progresses to emotion and only then presents as a diagnosis. Leaders who can recognise the process can intervene skilfully and prevent illness. This means being alert to overload, attention failure and withdrawal as below.
Leaders skilled at noticing how and when resilience fails are powerfully placed to intervene and prevent risk.
For example: at Confused, simplify priorities and give people a clear goal. At Disengaged understand how to establish rhythms, breaks and rejuvenation disciplines. At Withdrawn, reach out to a person and be sincerely interested. However, a leader’s job is not to be a psychiatrist.
While a better understanding and skilful bounce reinforcement is effective, it is important to know where skilled help can be found. That may be through human resources, EAP, coaches, psychologists or medical specialists. Our experience is that many leaders do not follow up. When someone is referred to expert help it is important to know that the event actually happened, how it is followed up and preferably some measures on how things have improved.
When one of your team is struggling with a mental health issue it can be unsettling. Be brave and meet with confidence. You are an important aspect of recovery.
Always be sincerely respectful. If you are concerned, reach out to someone in privacy and in a supportive environment. Sometimes simply showing your care can begin recovery.
Secondly, know your limits. Your job is not to be a psychologist. In conjunction with your people team make sure you work towards an appropriate referral.
Thirdly, be present for the recovery process. Part of the leader or manager’s job is to facilitate return to work. Let someone who needs help know that you expect them to recover and come back to work. Most people do.
We are seeing increasing distress amongst leaders who, while dealing with demanding roles, are taking perhaps too much of a supportive role with team members who may be suffering. The world of work is tough. Leaders must remain strong and resilient themselves. If we become too involved in the suffering of others we may suffer what is now termed empathic distress (compassion fatigue). The leader takes on the suffering of the team member. This will render you ineffective as a leader and will compromise both effective empathy and skilful support.
As we deal with more distress in the workplace, leaders need to step up to and take much better care of their own physical, emotional and cognitive resilience. Implementing a daily routine to support and sustain resilience is essential.
Work-related mental health conditions are overtaking physical safety as a critical risk in the workplace.
The World Health Organisation says anxiety and depression increased globally by 50% between 1990 and 2013 (Lancet, 2016). In May 2018, the American Psychiatric Association announced another 5% increase.
Leaders are scrambling to address the issue
The starting point is to be clear on definitions. When the term “mental health” is used, it is often thought of as a person’s level of depression or anxiety and their ability to bounce back from these conditions.
Mental health definitions
Clear definitions can help us address and solve the challenge:
Mental health = calm, alert, focused, agile, decisive.
Mental distress = distressed, anxious, depressed, hostile, withdrawn or delusional.
Resilience = a learned ability to recognise risk, bounce skilfully, and secure robust physical, emotional and mental well-being.
High Blood Pressure
Resilience interventions deliver a 30% reduction in “mental distress” symptoms
At the Resilience Institute, we measure the impact of our resilience interventions using the Resilience Diagnostic assessment. Our latest global report reveals that training interventions deliver an average 30% reduction in symptoms of depression (with results up to 82%) and a 32% average reduction in anxiety symptoms (with the highest result of an 86% reduction).
With antidepressants having a 3% impact, and sleep 6%, it is clear that people need an integral and practical solution to their mental distress.
Factor-level results from a sample of over 3000 participants include:
Enabling leaders to have more effective conversations about mental health
Our program, Mental Fitness, has been developed to help leaders understand mental health, have effective conversations and improve productivity.
Core components of the program:
- Understand the impact of mental health at work
- Taking care of themselves
- Have effective conversations about mental health
- Creating resilience in their teams
Available both as face-to-face workshops, webinars and video training delivered via the Resilience App, the content includes:
- Defining mental illness
- Symptoms and Signs
- Taking care of yourself
- Effective conversations
- The leader’s role and boundaries
- Securing support
- Crisis management
- From Distress to Flow
Mental Fitness introduction
Dr Sven introduces the Leader’s Guide to Mental Fitness program.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
I’ve been researching generational differences for 25 years, starting when I was a 22-year-old doctoral student in psychology. Typically, the characteristics that come to define a generation appear gradually, and along a continuum. Beliefs and behaviors that were already rising simply continue to do so. Millennials, for instance, are a highly individualistic generation, but individualism had been increasing since the Baby Boomers turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. I had grown accustomed to line graphs of trends that looked like modest hills and valleys. Then I began studying Athena’s generation.
Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it.
At first I presumed these might be blips, but the trends persisted, across several years and a series of national surveys. The changes weren’t just in degree, but in kind. The biggest difference between the Millennials and their predecessors was in how they viewed the world; teens today differ from the Millennials not just in their views but in how they spend their time. The experiences they have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them.
What happened in 2012 to cause such dramatic shifts in behavior? It was after the Great Recession, which officially lasted from 2007 to 2009 and had a starker effect on Millennials trying to find a place in a sputtering economy. But it was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.The more I pored over yearly surveys of teen attitudes and behaviors, and the more I talked with young people like Athena, the clearer it became that theirs is a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media. I call them iGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, members of this generation are growing up with smartphones, have an Instagram account before they start high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. The Millennials grew up with the web as well, but it wasn’t ever-present in their lives, at hand at all times, day and night. iGen’s oldest members were early adolescents when the iPhone was introduced, in 2007, and high-school students when the iPad entered the scene, in 2010. A 2017 survey of more than 5,000 American teens found that three out of four owned an iPhone.
The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.
To those of us who fondly recall a more analog adolescence, this may seem foreign and troubling. The aim of generational study, however, is not to succumb to nostalgia for the way things used to be; it’s to understand how they are now. Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both. More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.
Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.
Even when a seismic event—a war, a technological leap, a free concert in the mud—plays an outsize role in shaping a group of young people, no single factor ever defines a generation. Parenting styles continue to change, as do school curricula and culture, and these things matter. But the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.
In the early 1970s, the photographer Bill Yates shot a series of portraits at the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink in Tampa, Florida. In one, a shirtless teen stands with a large bottle of peppermint schnapps stuck in the waistband of his jeans. In another, a boy who looks no older than 12 poses with a cigarette in his mouth. The rink was a place where kids could get away from their parents and inhabit a world of their own, a world where they could drink, smoke, and make out in the backs of their cars. In stark black-and-white, the adolescent Boomers gaze at Yates’s camera with the self-confidence born of making your own choices—even if, perhaps especially if, your parents wouldn’t think they were the right ones.
Fifteen years later, during my own teenage years as a member of Generation X, smoking had lost some of its romance, but independence was definitely still in. My friends and I plotted to get our driver’s license as soon as we could, making DMV appointments for the day we turned 16 and using our newfound freedom to escape the confines of our suburban neighborhood. Asked by our parents, “When will you be home?,” we replied, “When do I have to be?”
But the allure of independence, so powerful to previous generations, holds less sway over today’s teens, who are less likely to leave the house without their parents. The shift is stunning: 12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.
We are waking up to the suffering and cost of mental illness. The World Health Organisation estimates that 1 in 4 of us will suffer from mental illness at some point in our lives.
Affecting 450 million people today it is the leading cause of illness. The cost to business is USD $1 trillion.
Simple mental health initiatives at work return $4 to $10 for every $1 invested.
Each one of us – if personally concerned, as a caring family member, or as a colleague at work can apply these 10 steps to secure mental wellbeing and rediscover our joy.
1. Understand where mental illness comes from
Genes, early environment, adverse events and our personal behaviours all contribute in complex ways. We have much to learn. It appears that a positive, nurturing early environment is protective even when we inherit recognised gene patterns (1). Learning to deal with adversity early in life is helpful. Learning the practices of resilience is definitely protective and part of recovery. In tragic or traumatic events, it is normal to feel anxious or sad. In most cases recovery starts within two weeks. Extreme events can have long term consequences including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress (PTSD).
Destructive childhood experience, social media time (greater than 2 hours/day), sleep disturbance and increased temperature are thought to be causative. Heat, weather events and human conflict increase the risk of violence, anxiety, depression and PTSD (2). Anxious parenting, excess sensitivity, reduced activity, limited outdoor time and isolation are correlated (3).
2. Recognise distress as a normal part of dealing with adversity
Every organism needs to know what is good and what is dangerous. This is how life has been so successful. In overwhelming threat, it is appropriate to withdraw, collapse or burst into tears. This is called the Freeze reaction and is associated with sadness. In conflict, it can be appropriate to shout, bite or hit. This is called the Fight reaction and is driven by anger. When it is possible to run away or avoid a conflict we trigger the Flight reaction driven by fear. These reactions can save our lives in acute and serious events. If repeated, such as war, regular weather events or natural disasters we can be left with PTSD.
Our fast-paced, digital modern life assails us with small, continuous threats and has reduced the time we have to recover, sleep and reconnect with loved ones. Some experience sadness as they feel worn down, dominated, isolated or abused. This can become depression. Some experience fear under continued threat or risk. This can become anxiety. Other get angry as they flail against difficulty. This can become hostility and rage.
While freeze, fight and flight force a reaction, the feelings of sadness, fear and anger can linger. Sadness is telling us to seek safety and reconnect with love and joy. Fear is telling us to move toward safety and calm. Anger is telling us to disable the threat.
These are normal emotions designed to protect and support you (4). We can learn to notice them and respond skilfully to the message. We can get stuck in in these destructive emotions. Unpleasant and repeating physical, emotional and thinking experiences dominate our being. When they become inappropriate to the context and inhibit normal function, we have to consider clinical depression, anxiety disorders or hostility disorders.
3. Know that we can recover and treatment is effective
Recovery, over time, is the normal outcome. Even in the case of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder sensible life management and treatment is effective. In the case of depression, anxiety and hostility, firm and caring support, lifestyle improvement, counselling, meditation, positivity and thinking skills can be curative. Medication should not be the default treatment (5).
4. Recognise, understand and counter anxiety
Address through the three lenses of body, emotion and mind. The body wants to run; heart rate increases, blood flows to legs (from skin and gut), breath rate increases, adrenaline in the body, nor-adrenaline in the brain and eventually cortisol increases. We feel this through the emotion of fear (nervous, anxious, terrified or horror). The mind is caught in loops of worry about future consequences.
Understanding this allows us to move about, relax our muscles, slow our breathing and seek safe, reassuring spaces – gentle music, nature, touch and sleep help. We can watch carefully for the first signs of fear and immediately remember calm, safe and peaceful images. This counters the fear with calm. Finally, we can watch for worries, write them down and challenge them. As we get better we can redirect our attention to the present moment.
5. Recognise, understand and counter depression
In depression the body wants to withdraw, collapse and be supported; posture slumps, head and eyes drop downward, fatigue increases, tears and early waking may occur. Cortisol increases. We feel disappointed, sad, isolated and hopeless. Our thoughts are trapped in personalising blame (“everything bad always happens to me”). We ruminate on negative thinking about the past. Optimism fades.
Understanding this allows us to sit up, look up and seek comfort from others. Exercise, fresh air, nature and a good sleep can help. We can acknowledge our sadness and push firmly toward happy thoughts, appreciate small things like sunshine and beauty, and seek joy and a smile. We counter sadness with appreciation, gratitude and joy. Counter the negative rumination by remembering that you are not alone, there are things to appreciate, and nurture hope and resolve that you will feel better soon. Being present to the moment helps.
6. Learn the practical steps of rapid bounce
Mastering bounce is your key to resilience – both sustaining your optimal life and growing from adversity (post-traumatic growth). Use the diagram below to help you recognise how resilience fails. Learn how you experience each level. Then practice specific practical actions that you can do to reverse the downward spiral.
7. Take care of your body
Your body and your physical wellbeing is ‘ground zero’. Thoughts and emotions have been designed to help the body deal with adversity and seek a positive state of living. Taking good care of your body is the core of a good life, prevention, resilience and recovery. It is proven to treat mental illness. Secure enough sleep at the right time. Be physically active every day. Eat well – less sugar, more vegetables and more Mediterranean. Get out in nature and sunshine most days. Stretch every morning. Slow your breathing and relax for at least eight minutes per day.
8. Cultivate positive emotion
Positive emotions activate vagal tone, improve health, increase happiness and improve our thinking. Stimulating happiness (even a chopstick between your teeth) counters depression. Calm relaxation counters anxiety. Kindness and compassion counters hostility. Gratitude, appreciation, contentment, passion, joy, serenity and enthusiasm are others. Every time you find a way to take time for a positive feeling you are more mentally fit.
9. Notice and direct your thoughts
Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) has proven to be as effective as medication in depression. It can be applied to all forms of adversity. In essence, it is simple:
- Pay attention to the content of your thoughts – write them down
- Challenge your thinking – test whether the thoughts are accurate
- Reframe the thoughts in more constructive terms
For example, in depression you may notice the thought “everything bad always happens to me”. Counter with: “Well, not everything. Yesterday was a good day. Others have challenges too.”
In fear, you may notice “how will I ever meet the deadline”. Counter with: “If I don’t, we will get by. If I turn my focus to what I need to do right now, we might get there. No point in worrying.”
10. Be kind and considerate to others
Seek joy and fulfilment by doing good things for others. Altruism (thoughtful, genuine kindness to others) helps you as much or more than those you help.
Start by being kind to yourself. Many of us are self-critical and hard on ourselves. Be gentle on yourself. Remember your goodness. Take time to enjoy and celebrate. To get started, sit quietly breathing slowly. As you inhale bring kindness inward. As you exhale let your goodness radiate out.
Use your altruism to be involved in a charity, helping someone in need, or choosing a job that does good things for others. Even sitting quietly and radiating out peace, love and joy to everyone you can think of has a powerful positive on every aspect of wellbeing – even the structure and function of your brain.
- Robert Sapolsky, Behave, 2017.
- David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth, 2019
- i-Gen, Jean Twenge, 2017
- Antonio Damasio, The Strange Order of Things, 2018
- Johann Hari, Lost Connections, 2018