By way of a change, this article is about something that is applicable to everyone, not just the mediocre. As far as I can see, looking after our mental health is the most important issue that we face as individuals, regardless of our ability. If you chat candidly with those around you it's sobering to find just how many friends and colleagues will have suffered from mental issues, but also reassuring to see how they've managed to cope and come out the other side.
A couple of times in my career I have teetered close to the edge. Back in London I once sat staring at a blank computer screen somehow avoiding bursting into tears as I struggled to solve an intractable problem that everyone else had walked away from. It was just an ad, but at that moment it had taken on ridiculous importance. I have often had the sleepless nights, the restless brain, and the feeling that everyone is relying on me to do a job that I'm really not sure if I can do. Humans strive on a degree of stress, but there is a limit.
I have been incredibly lucky in managing to remain relatively unscathed, in part because I worked out over the years to prioritise my mental wellbeing over everything else.
On occasion, I've turned down promotions because I was worried being able to handle the stress. You can lose a job or two but if you can keep your head together you'll get through it okay.
Any job gets stressful at times and it's just important to have a support network and an understanding that there is always an escape hatch. This is sometimes why you don't want to be paid too much. If your position at work is so stressful that it is in danger of causing you mental angst, yet you can't leave because you can't afford to take a drop in salary, you become trapped and the stress compounds. It really helps to build the financial reserves that will allow you to operate for a time with a reduced salary.
Often people think that senior management have it easy with the status to match their salary, but as Shakespeare said, "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown". The responsibility of senior positions can be overwhelming and there is often no long-stop to sort things out when things go wrong. Of course, mental stress comes from outside work as well and financial and relationship issues can compound any difficulties.
Those who say "man up and pull yourself together" are thankfully on the decline. Personally, I don't think these people have extraordinary mental strength that allows them to be disdainful of the struggles of others, they're either lying to themselves or maybe just too stupid to feel it.
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I am not a medical professional and if you are struggling, please talk to someone appropriate, but these are some things that have been helpful to me:
1. Speak up
Talking to someone about it, particularly with someone who understands your situation, really helps. It sounds obvious but we still don't do it enough. When I was in advertising I would have regular catch-ups with others who, although rivals, were going through the same work issues. It always helped.
We all know about the physical benefits of exercise, but it's also great for mental wellbeing. People don't just go to the gym for a beach body, they go because they feel better afterwards (endorphins apparently). It doesn't even have to be strenuous, a walk around the block can do wonders. When things were tough at work I would head off after work for long walks with the dog and often the solution to the problem would somehow appear before I came back.
3. Avoid vices
Avoid using drink or drugs to try and fix it. They might feel like the answer in the evening but by the morning they'll just make it worse.
4. Positive psychology
This is the idea that psychology has a role not just in in trying to fix things when they go awry, but also in trying to keep people together mentally as a matter of course. Looking after mental health is about constant awareness rather than trying to piece it together when broken. It's similar to physical health in that there are ways that with steady maintenance we can keep ourselves healthy rather than stumbling on until we're ill and then hoping that a doctor can fix us.
Lazing on deckchairs with a book and a cocktail is all very well but I actually found more value in going to places where work was utterly unimportant compared to what was going on around me. Lying awake in a tent listening to lions roaring outside while hyenas walk up and down helps concentrate the mind on things other than ads for toilet paper. Even just tramping through the bush not knowing if you'll ever be fully dry again can help. Keith Miller, the late Australian cricketer and WWII pilot, gave a more extreme example: "Pressure? There's no pressure in cricket. Pressure is flying a Mosquito with a Messerschmitt up your arse." Perspective can be a wonderful thing.
- Paul worked in advertising at a quite good level across New Zealand, the UK and Australia including co-founding an agency in Auckland. He considers himself very fortunate to have escaped major mental health issues. This is a series of articles about how to make the best out of maybe not being the best.