I’m in Sydney’s lockdown 2.0 and I’m struggling with my mental health. And I know I’m not alone. Every single person I’ve talked to in Sydney this past weekend has told me the same thing.
One friend who’s having to onboard new staff virtually, on top of dealing with mounting work pressure, sounded completely deflated. Another is pregnant and upset that she can’t share the experience with her friends or family or buy in-person the baby things she needs. Yet another is dealing with a break-up and constantly reminded of her lockdown situation last year when she was still living with her ex.
Personally, the biggest thing I’m struggling with is that I also keep comparing this lockdown experience to the last.
Last year, I was living in an apartment with a balcony that I’d be out on every morning and a bathtub that I would set up with candles and a stack of magazines every other evening. I worked only half days and would spend the rest of the day walking Bondi to Bronte, going for a swim or doing virtual Pilates. As wary as I am writing this as I know others were really struggling back then, lockdown 1.0 was actually a pretty lovely time for me.
This time ‘round, though, I’m in a tiny, dark apartment with no bathtub or balcony, working full-time hours (I know, cry me a river) and feeling completely unmotivated. I haven’t done a home workout once and on workdays, I have to force myself to get outside.
It’s just… different. And if I hadn’t had last year’s lockdown experience, it would be fine. But I did, and this time I’m not feeling the same. I can’t put my finger on what exactly I’m feeling, though, which I guess is the thing about emotions — they’re energy in motion. But I do know that I’m not feeling great. I’m emotional. I’m moody. And I’m anxious about what the future will hold.
So, the question is, should I tell my employer? If nearly everyone in lockdown 2.0 seems to be in the same boat, do they even need to know? And how would I even handle it?
I put these questions to Amber Rules, clinical psychotherapist and director and founder of Rough Patch Affordable Counselling, and Tory Archbold, entrepreneur, CEO and business coach at Powerful Steps, and here’s what they said.
Work out your outcome
Firstly, you’ll want to figure out what you might need in terms of support from your employer, says Rules. “Is it reduced hours, flexible hours, reduced productivity, help organising and managing workload or time off?” she says. “You might also want to ask for an extra hour off once a week to see a counsellor. Being clear about what you need may help the conversation go more smoothly and get your needs met.”
In the case that you don’t know what help you need or feel overwhelmed and unsure where to start, Rules recommends you talk to a counsellor first to gain some clarity and plan for the conversation.
Consider your work environment
Next, before you have a chat with your employer, you’ll want to really consider your work environment.
“I’d like to think all employers are supportive and willing to have these conversations with staff, but unfortunately that’s not always the case,” says Rule. “If your employer has indicated they value staff wellbeing and appear to be safe and trustworthy, then, by all means, tell them you’re having a hard time.”
“However, if you’re unsure whether they will treat this information with care and respect, you may want to consider how much you share with them. For example, you may choose to give a little bit of information for context without making yourself too vulnerable.”
It’s also worth checking whether your company has Employee Access Programs (EAP), which are external organisations that provide counselling to staff, as well as other mental health consulting services. The employer pays for this service to ensure staff are able to access free counselling supports. Ask your HR or People and Culture department whether this is available to you.
Plan out what you’ll say
If you have worked out that you do feel comfortable chatting to your employer about your mental health, it’s important that you think about what you want to say to them beforehand.
“When we feel anxious, stressed or overwhelmed, it becomes harder for us to think clearly and remember things,” says Rules. “Planning what you have to say can help with clarity and efficiency while you’re in a state of stress.”
Rules suggests running over what you are going to say with a trusted person or therapist and then writing yourself some notes. Keep in mind that the key to a successful conversation with your employer is to be authentic, adds Archbold. “When you own your story, you own your power,” she says. “You cannot change anything unless you first see your own self as powerful enough to act.”
That said, Archbold says she does recognise that saying something may be daunting, but that that’s completely normal.
“The number one reason people stay silent is because they don’t want to be judged on how their mental health could be viewed as a weakness within the organisation,” she says. “Getting uncomfortable is a feeling we need to embrace. Getting past that initial feeling of wanting to go back to safety is how you strength and gain from that uneasiness.”
Be clear and remain professional
And finally, the last step is to have the conversation. “The outcome is always a result of our delivery and how you frame what you need to translate the challenge into a possibility for you and your employer,” says Archbold. “Remember, human connection is a powerful business tool and it is also a mutual exchange of energy.”
Archbold suggests approaching someone in your leadership team who you trust and has a track record of showing compassion towards others. Flag that this is a private and confidential conversation as a first step, she adds, and tell them you are trusting them to show you a way through what you are struggling with so that you can remain an asset to the company and team, she says.
You may prefer to have the conversation in-person, or you may find you can be more direct and clear by writing an email, says Rules. “I would encourage people to share as much as they need to without going into details. For example, you might say ‘I’m having a bit of a tough time at the moment, and I wondered if we could talk about ways I might be able to ask for support from you or the organisation.”
“Be clear about what you’re struggling with — is it workload, a particular person, motivation, deadlines, etc? — and keep it as brief as possible. You shouldn’t have to pour your heart out in order to get what you need.”
Some parting words: “When it works well and both parties trust and respect each other, being authentic with your employer can help you get your needs met, prevent burn out and stress and build a culture of prioritising mental well-being,” says Rules.
“If everyone is able to be forthright about their needs and struggles, it can create an atmosphere of caring for each other in the workplace and destigmatise mental health needs.” Sounds like a pretty good result to me. Wish me luck!