Ups and downs are to be expected, and we must listen to what they are telling us

Not every day is the same emotionally. Nor should it be. The highs help us notice the lows, and the lows should help us to enjoy, or at least notice and acknowledge the highs. The bits in the middle typify the usual, the normal, or the run-of-the-mill days we live and work through. They are necessary as well. They give us useful perspective.

When we are under pressure, or if we aren’t getting enough pressure or pleasure, we feel overwhelmed. This year, when we are living in uncertain times, the rhythm of our highs and lows has changed. This is normal and to be expected. Lesson one.

Like many of those around me, I have noticed recently my lows may be getting more frequent and deeper. The highs are less often and lower – to boot. That’s step two in managing one’s emotional being; checking one’s barometer. Awareness and recognition are powerful tools.

“Life is a rollercoaster, just gotta ride it” sang Ronan Keating.  He was right.  But merely riding them is not simply enough.  Of course, we have to live through them.  We must.  But rather than passively journeying through them we must notice, be aware and understand them. 

Step three for me is to talk about it with others around me. Not easily done. Talking to your partner, family, and/or work colleagues is vitally important. To check-in with emotional feelings is powerful for self and helps those around you. They can feel included and informed in what is happening. But what happens next? I find as much normality as possible is the best response at this stage – for me. I don’t need anything much; not too much fuss or special treatment. What’s not good is any sense of people treading on eggshells or being too caring – if that makes sense. Some people benefit from a break when feeling like this, but for others this is the last thing they need. I may switch from one to the other. My body will tell me which way to go. What’s important is we all develop our personal knowledge about what works – for us. And that we give ourselves permission to do so. This is an issue of self-investment.

Usually these lows pass with little fuss and attention and my emotional state returns to the bit in the middle. That sense of things being okay, the routine of life. If I am lucky, a high might appear on the horizon as a useful distraction or morale booster. But as we all know, the likelihood of these occurring at the moment is reduced and we are all under enormous pressure from circumstantial events.

What happens if the low doesn’t ebb away, or it continues or deepens? What if you are indulging in unhealthy coping mechanisms or habits? Perhaps your sleep is affected too. Well, if you have spoken with those around you, then they may also be noticing this if you are lucky. And they may suggest some things to help. If not, you might need to revisit the conversations and let them know you’re still struggling and perhaps need extra support. And if that doesn’t work, then seeking professional health, wellbeing or counselling support might help or be appropriate. There are no quick fixes here, and returning from a deep low can be a longer job than many are prepared for. Longer term issues may start to manifest. And if these have been fed for decades, they will not be addressed in weeks.

Whatever, the whole ride needs to be viewed as a personal, judgement free, and open and honest journey with the aim of turning it around as best we all can.    

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I’m going off the idea of job titles

I remember earlier in my career I delighted in my first job titles. It made me feel all ‘grown up’ and they were obvious signs of my career progressing incrementally. I was so chuffed at the age of 27 years to bag the word ‘senior’ in my job title. How premature that seems now. Something I know I would recoil at these days, some 25 years later.

At Hempsall’s I’ve had the same job title for over 20 years, director that is. I have other project related titles, national this, programme that, and I am a psychotherapist as well. In the latter role it is probably more justified to have such a title, like a doctor for example. You wouldn’t want to be operated upon by anyone without the words specialist or surgeon on their badge or CV would you? But in general modern work environments we must ask are they necessary anymore?

Job titles do have a function.  They give the people you work with, internally and externally, including customers, the clues they need so they can work out what you do and tailor their interaction with you accordingly.  It’s the natural next step after they have consciously or subconsciously completed their initial assessment of you.  You know, they’ve looked you up and down, checked out your dress code, and worked out how old or experienced or senior you are.  They’ve analysed what you look like, sound like and feel like.  And that is the problem, right there.  That’s exactly what people do.  And I’m fed up with it. 

“Once you label me, you negate me.” Søren Kierkegaard was supposed to have said. And I agree. It is one of my favourite quotes, or at least the one I most easily remember. The trouble with titles is they do squeeze people into small boxes. And in these egalitarian, flatter-structure, multi-tasking, nimble and fluid environments at work, who wants or needs to be so tightly defined? Not me. And I don’t want the people I work with to be either. I want customers to be able to speak to any member of the team with confidence that their needs will be met.

The big risk is that as organisations get bigger, roles become more separate, specialist and disconnected. If it isn’t in your job description or title, then it simply isn’t done. And if your role is tightly defined then the ability to work in a fluid and team-focused way can often, although not always, be stifled. Some aspects of job titles can be almost impossible to shake off. They limit change. And there is a huge risk of them reinforcing inequality and hierarchy and power. Which is the polar opposite of what we want to achieve in tackling privilege and opening up opportunity.

We should all be able to fulfil all sorts of basic and essential business functions in our roles. By that I mean we should be health and safety focused, sales hungry, decision-makers and innovation creators – for example. I have presided over enough staff or business restructures and reviews to know how powerfully attached some can be to their job titles. The process can be a long and torturous one of negotiation and one that can be slow to change. All rather distracting and pointless. It doesn’t effect the change we are all aiming for. I’d rather focus more on roles and contributions and impact and difference made in roles, than what it says on the tin. And I want people in the team and our customers to be able to interact with each other equally and across all ‘levels’ of the people in the business. What makes this work is good communications across a business.

All this is easier said than done. This is my intent. Now, how does it happen?

Better be boundaried in personal and professional social media.

Like many, I have separate personal and professional social media accounts.  But it will have not escaped your notice that many people don’t and use single accounts for everything and therefore confuse the two.  They post personal and professional content on the same platforms.  This needs careful attention.  Here’s why.

In terms of content, I try extremely hard to only post professional content on professional social media accounts, and only post personal contact on personal ones.  This can be really difficult, but it is a principle I would urge everyone to adopt.  And of course, we should ensure content is respectful and helpful and balanced. 

We should all think twice before posting.  If in doubt, ask a friend if your proposed content passes these tests.  The delete button comes in very useful.  I delete, edit or clean up outdated or possibly sensitive content regularly.  Remember things move on quickly, and so should we.  And if you are not sure, as someone else to take a look.  And be prepared to listen and take action as a result. 

This is an issue about identity.  One’s personal and professional identities can become integrated, but discrete boundaries are helpful not only for ourselves but for those with whom we work.  One tip is to use a professional or other name for professional or work-related accounts.  And to use an appropriate name for personal accounts, this could be a different name.  Something especially important for roles such as therapists, like myself, who do not consider it useful for clients to discover personal information about their counsellor.  Easier said than done, and a determined client will seek out information to satisfy their craving for more. 

Technical skills come into play here.  How many of us are fully confident about the functionality of the social media we use?  What do you know about the privacy settings, for example?  A common finding of mine is people may think their personal social media is private or limited, but then are surprised to find out who can access it, or how extended networks reach people far more extensively than they would have imagined.  

Then there is the matter of tone or interpretation.  Often we can say one thing and it is received as another.  A few questions can help avoid common errors.  Things like: Would I comfortably say this to a client or colleague?  Could what I am writing be interpreted differently from my intent?  Remove as much doubt as possible.  If you cannot, then do you really need to post it anyway?    

It’s important to keep up to date with legislation, ethical guidelines and information on social media.  Including any organisational or association’s policies that you should be adhering to.  Failure to do so could have big implications for your job.  If such policies don’t exist, set your own informal or formal parameters. There is help out there, model policies, mentoring and training – take a look and use it before it is too late. 

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‘Why don’t you’ just turn off your TV set?

I am of an age that remembers the children’s television programme ‘Why Don’t You?’ A programme that didn’t appear to understand the irony of their main proposition. That we should “just switch off our television set and go and do something less boring instead?”

It ran between 1973 and 1995. I admit I watched it in the seventies mainly. It is advice I didn’t really take on board back then, being an avid TV fan I enjoyed becoming lost in the screen. But it is certainly guidance I follow now. And that’s funny because I am not exactly a fan of guidance. Well, spoon-fed, rigid and unnecessarily detailed micro-management guidance I mean. Guidance that seems too plentiful, complex and fluid even for its authors or commissioners. Even they find difficulty in remembering or following it. I digress, a little.

We live in an information age.  A too much information era.  One full of rolling news, breaking news, hand-held computers, PCs, laptops, tablets, social media alerts and dialogues that bring out the worst in people more than it brings out the best. And now we are subject to Government information briefings.

Information and news should be giving us certainty and assurance.  Instead it appears doubtful and tilted towards the worst-case scenario.  Our attitudes towards and fears for risk and health and safety are being fuelled by endless speculation and polarised and mercurial opinions.  Even the science is hypothetical it seems.  Quite the oxymoron.  Yet we are told the news and guidance is based on the science.  What a contradiction.  Is this really what the concept of ‘fake news’ is all about?  Are we mired in the trap of conjecture instead of enjoying the freedom of fact?   

All of this seems to be driving up general levels of concern and feelings of uncertainty.  And this fuels anxiety levels.  And anxiety drives depression and that results in all sorts of unhelpful and unhealthy behaviours and mental health concerns. 

I am starting to think that ignorance is bliss.  That I should just switch off that television set (and device, ‘phone, computer and Twitter account).  I am looking at too much information throughout the day.  It’s the first thing I look at in the morning, and the last thing at night.  Sometimes during the night. 

COVID-19 has ramped up the volume of content, the urgency and importance of it, and its serious implications.  Like many I did look at the daily briefings at 6pm.  In full lockdown, we watched Jamie cooking on Channel 4, then switched over to BBC1 for the Number 10 briefing.  This lasted for a few weeks, then the content diminished (in culinary and information terms).  The same graphs were rolled out and the statistics shared.  It wasn’t news anymore.  Now, it seems, we are starting to watch again to spot the gaffs, contradictions, confusions, and the disconnections. I have to admit though I have been part of the content. I’ve done national and international television, local TV and radio, national and local press. Children’s TV clearly taught me a lot about irony!

I should adopt the same principle I have adopted with the weather forecast.  Don’t bother watching it. It is rarely accurate.  And it is best to take an umbrella anyway.  Just in case.

All this sameness is a big test

Now, I realise that I have been fortunate not to have been directly affected by COVID-19 in this past six months.  My family and friends have been lucky too.  Especially given so many of us are in the hotspot of Leicester.  I haven’t had to self-isolate or quarantine or shield.  But people around me have.  It has been hard on them.  The effects for me have been how life and work have been curtailed and how it feels, and I am reflecting on what it says about me. 

Its been 10 days since I have blogged.  And I think the recent dearth of blogging has a lot to do with the sameness of life.  Things have settled into small routines and not a lot of new in my life.  I am fearful of what happens next – a full lockdown or the need to self-isolate and where that takes us all.  In Leicester, the extended lockdown and the enforced separation form other households has been difficult.  It has created tension and frustration as we all do our best to follow the often-uninterpretable rules. 

The working week has settled into a rhythm.  Gone is the travel to London and back and elsewhere.  There are no more face-to-face meetings.  No clients arriving for meetings at the office.  No events, receptions, or training to deliver.  Instead, my place of work is the office a 10-minute walk from home.  My location is my desk – five days a week.  It was typically once or twice – if that.  And interaction is online in zoom and teams, seminars, training and meetings.  Thank goodness two colleagues are able to come in and we can work at a safe distance from one another.

Evenings are spent almost exclusively at home without visitors.  Weekends tread the familiar path of exercise, shopping and cooking.  It is these changes to personal and professional habits that are a real challenge.  There’s no more theatre, cinema, cafés, or pleasurable meandering shopping.  Instead, its boxsets and TV, eating and drinking at home, and purposeful mask-wearing shopping.  I do feel like a ninja in the supermarket.  Masked up and focused on my smash and grab buying.  Not much to complain about then I hear you say.  I agree. 

But it interesting what it does to one’s mood and how motivation ebbs and flows and impacts on mental health.  Where is all that emotional benefit from the activities of the previous way of life?  It is funny how being busy or at least moving around a lot filled the day before.  It can give a sense of purpose – whether that be real of false.  Perhaps it is a distraction.  But I miss it.

I have found writing a great comfort and occupation over the past six months – blogs, work projects, and even two books on the go.  But that has waned for the time being.  Creativity has diverted towards hedgerow harvesting and preserving.  The many jars of sloe gin and plum chutney amongst other things are a testament to that.  What happens next is anyone’s guess.  The prospect of a further six months is something to tackle head on and learn from.