2. Mental Health and Work

Having looked at mental health in general, now let’s address the challenges of mental health at work.

For example, how is it possible to maintain a healthy perspective when our jobs become excessively or unreasonably demanding, and we find ourselves working all the hours God sends and losing any possible work-life balance? How do we avoid becoming disillusioned or burnt out in a toxic or badly managed start-up or legacy-led company? And what about bullying bosses – how to cope with those? How can we learn to bounce back from failure or redundancy, and even thrive? Above all, how can we grow and develop our confidence and self-esteem so we can become more resilient, whatever the external economic situation throws as us?

Having experienced abundant ups and downs with work over the past decade – whether with start-ups, in full-time or temporary jobs, or as a freelancer – I hope relaying some of my personal mental health struggles and learnings may help those facing similar issues. Unless you have a completely stress-free, perfect job or no longer need to work, you will no doubt have moments where your own mental health is challenged in at least one or even several of these areas. In fact, having seen a wealth of responses from friends in all sorts of industries and roles following a post on Facebook about how a toxic work colleague’s behaviour was affecting my enjoyment of a job, it is clear such experiences are extremely common.

This blog is divided into sections and sub-sections, which include some take-aways for each main theme. While my experiences within media / journalism and freelancing may be less relevant to those working in other industries, I trust the more generic sections relating to – for example, bosses from hell, or some of the issues those now having to work from home are experiencing – will strike a chord.

The newsroom as we have known it: a buzzing, lively office manned with hard-working, dedicated reporters and editorial / production staff, all working 24/7 at locations around the world to ensure every breaking news story goes out on time and is fully accurate and well-written Source: Wikipedia

The ups and downs of journalism post-downturn: my story

In my industry (media and journalism – specifically production journalism), the sudden financial downturn of 2008 seemingly happened at the same time as a rapid conversion from print-based publication production to digital media-based production, which together signalled the end of any job security or permanence in the industry. The old traditional ways of working with a fully staffed newsroom were being challenged by younger, digital-only disruptors, and advertisers were also moving on, thus forcing media organisations to scramble for new solutions to stay financially viable.

Many already existing newspapers, magazines, journals and other publication types decided to shed their more expensive, older print staff and replace them with younger, less-experienced or knowledgeable, but presumably more digital-savvy millennials, or alternatively rely on a bank of freelancers. Those who wanted to stay on were either asked to take a massive pay cut or forced to learn new skills. It did not matter – and still doesn’t, considering the incredible amount of ghastly factual and typographical errors one sees regularly now on all kinds of publications – whether there was any advancement in quality, because once the bean-counters took over, the main driver became how many clicks each story got.

When the downturn hit, I was working (somewhat ironically) in financial journalism, for a large and well-established media company. It was a job I had loved and thrived in, having achieved an internal award and several promotions. However, in 2008 the company suddenly decided to axe half their staff, and my position was made redundant. While I could understand the management’s position objectively, it was still a bitter pill to swallow. What was I to do with all my now well-developed skills and knowledge?

The legacy journalism newsroom of yesteryear – while it is already a nostalgic, distant memory for most of us, many new media start-ups are still based on thisSource: Wikipedia

Ironically, when I first came to the UK, everyone said, “Don’t be a journalist – be a sub-editor. You’ll never be out of work.” While that sage advice was indeed valid for many years, it did not foresee this particular crisis in the industry, nor the issues many great, highly skilled and experienced print sub-editors like me would encounter once the entire news industry converted to digital publishing seemingly overnight.

Along with a sudden intense competition for the few remaining print jobs going, there was also greater pressure to develop entirely new, digital-related skills – search engine optimisation (SEO), coding, and other technical and social media skills, among others. Some, like me, managed the transition well, and are now flourishing as digital-only journalists and production editors; others less so.

The freelance life: pros and cons

As a result of this change, over the next 10–12 years, I have worked on and off for various digital media start-ups and creative agencies, also working as a freelance journalist, copywriter/editor, newspaper and magazine sub-editor for print and digital publishers, Americanizer/Angliciser, editorial manager and proofreader/QC (quality controller) (see here for a very few examples). I also edit various academic, fiction and non-fiction book, etc manuscripts by private commission, as I had also done for several years after leaving a role as an in-house senior commissioning editor for the Quarto Group and while I was also teaching salsa part-time locally.

At one point, I hit upon a fairly lucrative annual stream of work and decided to set up my own company (Creative Editorial Limited), which I eventually shut down, as having to file tax returns every quarter was infinitely tedious – it was far easier to remain a self-employed freelance sole trader and do my tax returns annually. But in addition to the need to file self-employed taxes annually, freelancing also has its own ups and downs. 

For example, fellow freelancers will recognise the adage that freelancing can be a bit like buses – you wait ages for one, and then suddenly three come all at once. While the busy times are exciting, filled with variety and fresh challenges, the quieter periods in between contracts, in-house bookings or commissions, when you might go for weeks or even months with only a few scraps of work, can be very challenging.

If you have another source of income or a spouse who can support you, such gaps may be fine and indeed welcome. But if not, it can be very stressful if you have regular bills to pay – particularly when there are issues with clients paying on time or even defaulting on pay, as alas can happen, particularly when/if companies go bust.

Today’s tools of the trade: for freelancers, working from home – or anywhere you can find a decent WiFi signal – was normal long before the pandemic. Source: Pinterest

Along with the delayed-pay issues, I’d often find – as again fellow freelancers will recognise – that companies only love you as long as they need you. As soon as their immediate crisis is over, they forget all about you. This, at times, impacted my self-esteem. Why, if they thought I was so great for several months, did they suddenly dump me or fail to answer my messages, or ghost me? At times I felt like all I did was kiss frogs: When would my prince – the promised land of regular, reliable freelance work I could just do until (if) I was ever in a position to retire and do all the creative work I longed to do – ever materialise?

As other freelancers will also recognise, when you are not working, you are always looking for work or promoting your business, which is itself a full-time job. Sometimes this situation got me down, at which point I would apply – and often interview, sometimes many times – for seemingly zillions of jobs. Some of those jobs I got – often working for new-media start-ups – turned out to have nightmare commutes or bosses, so did not last long. In these times of on-off, up-down employment, I had to fight to keep my mental health stable, through utilising some of the practices described below.

Wisely, I have always maintained my freelancing contacts as a fail-safe, and have improved my chances of remaining employed / employable by diversifying my skills and learning new techniques – for example, instead of letting the loss of print-based journalism defeat me as it did some, I did an online digital marketing diploma course with the Digital Marketing Institute (which by the way just published an excellent new year post on mental health and wellness – see here). This then opened up new streams of work via digital marketing copywriting, editing and proofreading.

MAIN TAKE-AWAYS

  • The switchover from print to digital news has vastly impacted journalism as we have known it. While some online news sites endeavour to maintain the legacy newsrooms values of old, this is a very fragile space. Would I advise anyone to get into journalism now? In a word, NO.
  • Although freelancing offers many positives – freedom from the routines of full-time work; variety; being your own boss – it is not for the faint-hearted. You must learn to make the best use of your ‘gap’ time and be disciplined with your finances, whether you are self-employed or a limited company.
  • Developing and diversifying your skills so you can add other streams of income is essential to staying financially viable, as well as mentally and emotionally resilient, whatever the work situation.
Most start-ups begin with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and even high-sounding, ethical ideas. It’s easy to get caught up in an entrepreneur’s vision – but what happens when the dream fails? – Credit: Auston Distel, Unsplash

Why some start-ups fail: burnout

While the total amount of start-ups around the world is unknown (some estimates place it at around 4.4. million), it is generally agreed that at least 90% of these will fail, with 10% failing within the first year and around 70% failing within the first two to five years. As regards mental health and work, it is necessary to note that according to recent research by private equity firm CB Insights, burnout is among the top 12 reasons why so many start-ups fail.

In my own experience of working for and helping helm several media and creative start-ups over the past decade or so, although I usually started out with tonnes of energy and idealistic enthusiasm for the project, inevitably this initial buzz was subsumed by feelings of mental and physical burnout. Usually this was due to unrealistic expectations and demands – both on the part of the start-up’s founders or management and myself.

According to an article by Elizabeth Scott PhD in Verywell Mind, the term ‘burnout’ was first coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger, who described it as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results”. Indeed, one of the main symptoms of burnout is an overarching cynicism, a sense of ‘losing the will to live’. If not addressed, this can be fatal to any enterprise in terms of its effect on teams and individuals, as well as on external clients and customers, and ultimately on shareholders / investors. One of the most reliable indicator that a company is in trouble when one or more of its employees is off work due to stress-related exhaustion and burnout. Another is a frequent and rapid turnover.

One of the most reliable indicators that a company is in trouble when one or more of its employees is off work due to stress-related exhaustion and burnout. Another is a frequent and rapid turnover.

So what causes burnout in start-ups? One of the biggest reasons is that the effort needed to get these up and running quickly becomes an all-consuming mission. Everything is at stake, both economically and in terms of reputation, as most start-ups begin with only a small amount of seed funding, with those involved often using their own savings or even their houses or entire possessions as collateral. This intensifies the pressure to get the initial business plan right, to develop a sound and viable path for growth, and thereby attract further investment.

Such pressures are not only felt by the founders or others at the top, but also by all the staff employed to bring these plans to fruition – and with less available funding for more staff, some of the key or initial employees may find themselves filling several roles or performing several functions at once.

While many early-stage start-up employees willingly accept positions on a reduced salary or with additional time pressures because they believe in the start-up’s concept and believe their involvement will enable them to realise their own professional objectives and career ambitions. However, once the start-up begins to grow and succeed, and new appointments accelerate, some of the initial staff may find their own positions or goals remain undeveloped and their personal needs unmet.

Once the start-up begins to grow and succeed, and new appointments accelerate, some of the initial staff may find their own positions or goals remain undeveloped and their personal needs unmet.”

They may see others moved into or appointed to positions they themselves had hoped to obtain, or fail to get a hoped-for pay raise, and so struggle with feelings of disappointment, disillusionment, insecurity, anxiety, resentment and/or bitterness, or a feeling that their own sacrifices and commitment are undervalued and underappreciated.

Such thoughts or impressions – if left unchecked or not dealt with – can very quickly escalate into a mental health issue among individual staff or even within a whole team, as some will voice their frustrations and circulate a cynical, negative vibe that can quickly develop into a toxic environment, which also has more opportunity to flourish in an open-plan, shared office.

Perhaps worse, some will choose to suffer in silence, becoming progressively more disenchanted or aggrieved while outwardly keeping their heads down and focusing on the work. They may find themselves suffering from headaches and stomachaches as they inwardly churn. But over the long term, not voicing or addressing any issues takes its toll, as eventually the Herculean effort required to suppress or hide any negative feelings of disillusionment or grievance will lead to temporary or physical exhaustion, requiring the staff member to be signed off from work due to stress.

Image for Verywell Mind by Brianna Gilmartin

This is particularly the case with many dedicated, hard-working and highly skilled females employed in a senior or middle-management role in a start-up, who are often paid far less than their male counterparts. If you as a woman have a sympathetic boss who is willing to take your suggestions onboard and progress (and pay) you accordingly, as well as a supportive and non-competitive team, count yourself very fortunate – all too often this is not the case.

Due to the ‘legacy’ nature of male-dominated companies – particularly, or at least in my own experience, newsrooms and advertising agencies – many media or creative start-ups will seek to employ older, more experienced and knowledgeable (and thus ‘more expensive’) females to help mentor and train the keen but usually inexperienced or less-knowledgeable (and hence cheaper) junior or freelance staff, after which they may simply be let go as a cost-reduction strategy. In such cases, the females hired to fill these roles can easily feel they are being ‘used’.

For example, in one of the new-media start-ups I worked for, I was expected to train an in-house copy-editing team comprising five junior millennials in using the system, knowing how and when to check content and finesse the text, and to recognise the many subtle differences between US and UK grammar. I was also required to source, hire and train some 21 remote freelance staff around the world. However, I soon discovered that because of the company’s absurd freelance hourly fees (which were in fact below the legal minimum hourly wage), the work the freelancers delivered was massively rushed, rife with errors and containing some serious faults, eg plagiarism. The adage “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys” was certainly true in this case.

Sadly, when I confronted management about this issue, the CEO refused to budge on the fees, and instead dismissed me without so much as a thank you for all the hard work and effort I had put into establishing its editorial style and workflow. I left feeling quite disillusioned, as many others also did. Although the company has continued to exist and is (superficially, at least) perceived a ‘success’, it has had a continual revolving door of exiting employees – not to mention a generally bad write-up on Glassdoor – which any investor worth his or her salt should wisely steer clear of. Employers should know that how their staff – including any disgruntled former employees – speak of them will inevitably affect investment appetite, not to omit the costs of having to advertise, hire and train new staff constantly, itself a very time-consuming and expensive business.

Employers should know that how their staff – including any disgruntled former employees – speak of them will inevitably affect investment appetite, not to omit the costs of having to advertise, hire and train new staff constantly, itself a very time-consuming and expensive business.

Inevitably, there will be many ambiguities and uncertainties as companies navigate their direction and cope with the additional challenges of growth. At such times, it is crucial for leaders and heads of companies to maintain clear and open transparency and accountability with their staff, as any failure to do so can introduce disquiet or discontent, particularly if uncertainties about the company’s direction or any ambiguities about roles continue over a long period of time. Prolonged uncertainty can lead to anxiety and symptoms of mental, emotional, physical and spiritual burnout among staff; in such times, many employees may simply lose the will to continue and quit, or be signed off sick with stress.

If you are an employee in a start-up and have begun to experience any of the symptoms of burnout, it is wise to embed some solid self-care routines into your working day – take time out to pray and meditate, spend time in nature, get some exercise, see friends, do activities you enjoy, and maintain a healthy diet and sleep schedule as much as possible. But if the situation begins to look like it is heading for a nosedive, polish your CV / resume and begin to look for a plan B. Life is really too short to put up with such abuse!

Massive boss screaming at a small employee: some bullies pick on people simply to make themselves seem bigger or more importantSource: Depositphotos

Bullying bosses and toxic teams

The saying is that “people don’t leave jobs; they leave bosses” – however, while this is certainly true, there is also the aspect of toxic teams whose behaviours can seriously affect one’s mental health at work. While I have indeed had some stellar examples of bad bosses (see below), it has more often been the unpleasant atmosphere created by ‘office politics’ that made me vote with my feet and remain a happily unburdened freelancer, regardless of any pay or perks that can come with a salaried role.

And apparently, I am not alone: a recent LinkedIn post highlighted the problem of toxicity in work teams, citing research from the BBC that showed that one in five American workers left jobs because of a toxic workplace culture, while a whopping 64% of British workers said experiencing problematic behaviours in the workplace – including uncensored / unchecked racist comments, abuse and bullying – had negatively affected their mental health.

Considering we spend a large proportion of our waking hours at work, it can be difficult to maintain our peace and external perspectives with the constant tit-for-tatting or one-upmanship that can take place in any situation where ambitious people jockey for prime positions in a company. Such behaviour can eventually wear down even the most otherwise sane and rational / objective individual and, if prolonged or abusive enough, can lead to frequent job-hopping or even mental breakdown.  

While there is nothing particularly novel about political infighting in the worlds of journalism (or any sector, probably), the increasing instability and paucity of media jobs makes fighting for work and ‘security’ through mistreating others on the team quite a common occurrence. Many seem to think that getting ahead or preserving their jobs means they must of necessity abuse or put others down to make themselves look good. Perhaps such behaviours served them well in the past – for example, when they were at school – so even as they enter the workforce they continue to repeat them whenever they feel insecure or threatened. However, such schoolroom-type bullying behaviour is exactly what it appears: the perpetrators may physically be adults, but in every other sense they are children, locked in an endless competitive battle for dominance.

I’m not sure about anyone else, but I certainly have no desire to revisit that kind of junior high-school bully-victim drama at work when I am simply just trying to do my job!

Quote from author Susan Abrams Milligan on Facebook source: Pinterest

Often the management either turns a blind eye or encourages such behaviours, meaning they not only proliferate but all too often lead to a revolving-door scenario.

One experience that particularly comes to mind was in my first job at the helm of a brand-new media start-up. Unsurprisingly, this was just after the downturn, and many were feeling insecure about the future – but rather than creating a mutually supportive atmosphere, this brought out the cynically cut-throat in some. I tried my best to hire a team of hard-working, talented people – some of whom I’d worked with before we were both made redundant by another company – who I thought would be grateful for a job.

Unfortunately, I had not reckoned on one of these hires being a snake. It soon became clear this ‘deputy’ was determined to get my job and title, and make me ill in the process. It was only later that I witnessed the full extent to which this scheming, back-stabbing, manipulative junior colleague would go, not only seeking to undermine me at every turn, but ultimately twisting circumstances to his own advantage so that he was left the sole survivor when the inevitable restructuring began. He had so thoroughly deceived and manipulated the other team members that they didn’t even realise they were also being set up to be let go.

Although I did try to bring this to my chief’s attention once I copped on to what was happening, I found this was fruitless. The snake had already wrapped his wiles around him, and in truth, while the chief was a very gentle, sweet-natured man, he was also a hopelessly idealistic and impractical visionary, who, while outwardly very supportive of my attempts to lead the team and work, did not offer any practical or personal support. Being that I was for most of the time the only female in all-male in-house team, he seemed to consider that my main function was to serve as his secretary, so any time I tried to discuss any problem with him, he would instead go on at length about his own problems (not that he actually had any).

Cartoon representation of a bully and a victim used to depict Western European powers and the United States bullying Serbia in the aftermath of the 2008 Kosovo declaration of independence during the 2008 Serbian protestsSource: Wikipedia

Considering I was also putting in all the hours God sent to meet challenging international deadlines, and additionally faced a two-hour commute on either end of very long weekly press days, I inevitably suffered physical, mental and emotional burnout. Despite having initially been highly invested in the start-up’s high-sounding, ethical idealism, I concluded that this principled ethos was not matched by the in-office politicking, and thus my initial enthusiasm for the project evaporated.

Between the long hours I was putting in and the backhanded sniping adding grief to the daily grind, I found it impossible to cope with the demands of the job as well as the constant one-upmanship in my team and the complete lack of sympathy or support from my boss, so in the end regrettably felt I had no choice but to leave. Yet if I had only had proper support from the chief, or the wider management had intervened constructively in the inter-team issues before it got to that pass, it is likely I would still be there.

However, while that work scenario certainly had its poisonous moments, it paled in comparison with a subsequent job in which I was employed in a fraudulent, misleading capacity as editor-in-chief of another media start-up headed (unofficially, at least initially) by a narcissistic, bullying, security-paranoid, highly temperamental (and potentially manic-depressive, judging by his volcanic, unpredictable, yet regular temperamental mood swings), gaslighting, deceitfully charming and micromanaging boss. Compared to him, any other ‘boss from hell’ I ever had was a walk in the park – not only in his treatment of me, but also in his callous behaviour towards freelancers and the staff of the sister organisation he was also unofficially heading.

From the bullying.about.com website – image from Pinterest

Luckily, I was not often in the office – mostly because I was usually required to work until 2–3am on weeknights and often all through the weekend and even while on holiday to meet mysterious and objectively unwarranted online publishing ‘deadlines’. However, whenever I was in the shared office with staff from the sister organisation, the way I/we coped with the boss’s chaotic and unpredictable appearances was to joke about his shambolic management and ill-tempered outbursts. While this helped build a sense of camaraderie and ‘comic relief’ from our mutual suffering, it still did not fully eliminate the toxic atmosphere whenever he was there, nor deliver us from his vitriolic, mood-swinging diatribes.

One male colleague was signed off with stress and unable to work for well over a year, so badly was his self-esteem and mental health affected; others simply exited as soon as possible to escape the abuse. Others, perhaps sucked in by either his occasional charm or vain promises of gifts, ambitious projects or financial compensation, which was relatively generous (even if dubiously sourced), managed to develop a kind of resilient strength, or simply disappeared into social media whenever the office tension rose on the back of his sporadic and vitriolic appearances.

Those who succeeded in getting out and/or have since gone on to find better jobs and causes to work for are undoubtedly much better equipped to cope in future, as unless you were suffering under a regime with a truly crazed, despotic tyrant, it likely doesn’t get much worse than this, so your coping skills need to crank up several notches.

Title/cover of a recommended book by Gary Chapman and Paul White, from an image on Pinterest

How to cope with bad bosses and work situations

While there is some debate about the actual numbers of those who leave jobs they are otherwise highly skilled at or suited to because they cannot abide a nightmare boss or toxic teammate, it is indeed very common – whether the boss or colleague in question is insecure, fearful of failing or hopelessly ineffectual, or alternatively an out-of-control, demanding and unsympathetic tyrant or spectacularly narcissistic.

While the simplest solution may, in the end, be to leave, if you really do love the job and your team, or have other reasons to stick around – for example, you need the money or it is an essential step in your career path – how do you cope with bullying bosses or toxic teams and so safeguard your mental and physical health?

First, it is important to practise detachment, whether from any targeted personal negative vibes you get from a bullying, shouting or abusive boss or from any toxic, scheming colleagues. Take time out to put yourself first: focus just on doing what makes you feel good, on meeting your own needs and building up your own sense of self-worth – you are still a person and have a life beyond the day job, so make sure you use your free time to enjoy a hobby and see your family and friends so as to reinforce your sense of self and value outside of work. Practise mindfulness, prayer and/or meditation daily to shield your mind from negative self-talk or rehashing the work agitation. If it helps, compartmentalise – and by all means, at the end of a hellish working day or week, SWITCH OFF!!

Remember that a job is simply what you do for a living – it does not define or limit you. In the same way that you cannot take any earthly goods with you when you die, so, too, your ultimate purpose and identity exists outside of work – it is not what you do, but who you are, that is of value. As a Christian, I know that my true identity and purpose is that I am a child of God – and no human, whether a nightmare boss or manipulative colleague – can ever take that away from me, even if they might upset, obsess or derail me if or when I allow them to play havoc with my mind. Recognising and remembering that your life has a meaning and value outside of work is essential to maintaining good mental health, along with a healthy sense of self-worth and self-esteem – and bringing that to your work means you are better able to bring and do your best.

Second, remind yourself that whatever you are facing is just temporary – that “this too shall pass”. If a work situation or environment is that stressed or the boss is that bad, the business will eventually fail or be taken over. Or something else will inevitably force a change, because nothing in life – not least in business – is ever stagnant; it is always moving and changing. And while such changes may or may not resolve the issues in your personal circumstances, if you have chosen to stick around, you are still growing and developing personal skills and characteristics such as fortitude and perseverance – all of which will stand you in good stead in your next endeavour.

Take time out to put yourself first: focus just on doing what makes you feel good, on meeting your own needs and building up your own sense of self-worth – you are still a person and have a life beyond the day job, so make sure you use your free time to enjoy a hobby and see your family and friends so as to reinforce your sense of self and value outside of work.

Third, focus on developing an alternative income stream. Diversifying is the key to maintaining employment, as has been reinforced over decades in my own experience of on-off freelance work. Do you have a hobby or skill you could perhaps develop and monetise? Is there something you have always longed to do, but have never been able to find time for? If you have an overbearing boss you can’t leave because of finances, or feel stuck in a rut in your present job, now might be time to build your own escape hatch. Take a course, get an additional qualification, or spend a few hours each week developing your skills and building an industry-related network outside your immediate job – such activities will not only empower you, but may even lead to a brand-new career or dream job.

Fourth, it may be hard – and indeed it is never easy – to forgive those who mistreat or abuse you, who lie to, gossip about or malign you, who try to destroy your reputation, steal your job or even threaten your sanity. But you can’t really move on or be ready for the next challenge until you do. For the sake of your own mental health – which also involves your own growth and development as a person – choose to practise forgiveness until you can truly let it go. If it helps, use your imagination to see the offender as a silly animal, or perhaps imagine them parading in their birthday suit – anything that will help you view them as a fellow flawed and vulnerable human being, as in fact we all are (“there, but for the grace of God, go I”).

I confess I’ve struggled with forgiveness at times, particularly in situations where I was abused by bad bosses or colleagues, or felt cheated after expending considerable time and effort to build up a business. There were a few times I was promised a promotion, pay rise or the perfect opportunity to develop my career potential, but something or someone inevitably let me down. There were not a few times others took credit for or profited from my work and ideas, and many times I did not get paid or paid adequately for work I completed on time and to a very high standard.

But if I had dwelt on any of those things and allowed them to dominate me, I would not have grown as a whole person or developed other skills and talents in the ways I have. Eventually, through all the work ups and downs, even those days I felt nearly swallowed up by the deep, dark tunnel of my own – and perhaps the industry’s – making, shards of light began to break through, and I began to recover. Now, having begun to walk towards that light, I know that all I need to do is just keep walking, persevering in the practices I have learned along the way.

As the saying goes, circumstances will either make you bitter or better. So choose to act with grace so that your bad work situations can become your steppingstones to a better you – and a better future.

MAIN TAKE-AWAYS

  • No job or start-up – however much it may pay and/or seemingly align with your values – is worth sacrificing your own health and peace of mind for.
  • If a toxic, negative vibe develops, leave before it gets to you, or you may suffer from both physical and mental ill health.
  • If you are a woman in a place of seniority, make sure your boss is one who will listen to you. If not, you are probably better off deploying your skills elsewhere.
  • If you are a manager, strive to maintain an open, transparent communication with your staff, even if/when you yourself do not know what is going on.
  • Also, make sure you take time out to check up on your staff to ensure they are okay and are still on board. That is ultimately both time-efficient and cost-effective management, as you don’t want to be caught out if a situation blows up and staff leave suddenly in the middle of a project.
  • If you are beginning to feel burnt out and/or can’t solve a persistent problem, remember to take a break – sometimes the answers come best when we are rested and have “switched off”.
Meditation and detaching are key to combatting issues with toxic teams and bullying bosses – for your own mental health, you need to step away – Credit: Adobe Stock/stournsaeh

Along with the occasional burnout I suffered either with start-ups or full-time jobs, or as a freelancer, either juggling several jobs or clients’ deadlines simultaneously or having longer gaps between paid commissions, there were several other mental health issues I struggled with from time to time: depression, loneliness/isolation, a loss of a sense of self-worth/value (all the more so if your identity is tied to what you do for a living and you are suddenly described as ‘redundant’), and occasional social anxiety because of the stigma of being unemployed, or at least not employed in any ‘normal’ 9–5 Monday–Friday rhythm.

Now that most of the world has experienced all or some of these mental health issues as a result of the Covid-19 lockdowns, with work from home becoming ‘the new normal’, perhaps it’s easier for others to understand how it feels to be stuck at home with little social contact – and yet this is something freelancers can struggle with regularly. Apart from full-time jobs or in-house bookings lasting one to six months or perhaps over a year or two – quite often during times everyone else is off on holiday – most of my freelance work over the past two decades has been from home. And while everyone else is shuttling off to offices daily instead of sitting down to their computers alone at home, it can indeed be very lonely, particularly for a natural extrovert like myself.

During such times, I have been grateful for social media as an outlet for human interaction. Yet social media is both a blessing and a curse: on the plus side, you can freely ‘chat’ with friends and colleagues around the world 24/7; on the minus side, if you are not careful, you can easily get addicted to it and waste several hours a day scrolling aimlessly. It can also trigger FOMO (fear of missing out), especially when you see friends travelling frequently or doing other things you can’t afford or aren’t able to do.

An upside-down world: social media has turned all of our lives around – but sometimes not for the best – Credit: Christopher Ott at Unsplash

“Social media is both a blessing and a curse: on the plus side, you can ‘chat’ with friends and colleagues around the world 24/7; on the minus side, if you are not careful, you can easily get addicted to it or waste several hours a day scrolling aimlessly. It can also trigger FOMO (fear of missing out), especially when you see friends travelling or doing other things you can’t afford or aren’t able to do.”

Therefore, inasmuch as social media helps combat mental health issues such as loneliness, it can also lead to whole new issues. Consequently, I have usually found it necessary to limit myself to logging on to Facebook or other social media channels for only brief periods or at set times a day – for example, during a morning or afternoon coffee break – as otherwise it can become a very unhealthy obsession and a drain on your time. [My Uncle Bob used to say about boats that they are a “hole in the water you throw money into”; I see social media as a hole in the ether you throw time into!]

At times being either out of or between work has occasionally brought on bouts of depression connected to a sense of purposelessness, particularly if a job I was formerly invested in came to an end abruptly or negatively for some reason – for example, mass redundancies or restructuring. When you are used to waking up every morning and having a job to go to where you are totally focused for a full eight hours or more on doing work you will get some recognition and sense of self-worth / value and /or identity from – if nothing else, in the form of a monthly or weekly paycheque – suddenly not having this can be very depressing indeed.

When you are used to waking up every morning and having a job to go to where you are totally focused on doing work you will get some recognition and sense of self-worth / value and /or identity from – if nothing else, in the form of a monthly or weekly paycheque – suddenly not having this can be very depressing indeed.

There can also be an unfortunate tendency during gaps of non-work of either worrying about the future (How on earth will I be able to pay the bills / make ends meet?) or nulling over the past: If only I had said or done / not said or done such and such, perhaps the result would be different. If the situation was outside your control – such as a company going bust – it may be easier to avoid such thoughts or come to a place of acceptance about the situation, but if it ended negatively in any way that could (or should – for example, with better management) have been avoided, it may be more difficult to avoid such thoughts.

However, whether the situation was something you could or could not have changed, you still have to choose to put positive disciplines (such as practising gratitude daily for what was, and then actively letting it go [I know, this is far easier said than done]) in place to safeguard your mental health.

In my own case, it so happened a few years ago that when I found myself in one of these very negative ‘if only’ mental loops, I suddenly received a very graphic ‘warning’ dream that made me wake up with a fright and realise I simply had to change my thinking patterns, or I really was in danger of losing everything. The dream went like this:

I dreamed I was driving a car down a very steep hill on a dark autumn day, where the hill was covered in wet leaves. As I descended, the car began to spin out of control, and I woke up with a start, knowing that if I did not do something to ‘put the brakes on’ that spiral of negative thoughts, I would crash. I literally needed to choose between life and positivity over the negative thoughts that would only lead to death.

After that dream, I knew that for the sake of my mental health, it was absolutely critical to make positive choices, to choose to engage with life instead of allowing the downward spiral of negative thoughts to drown me.

I did recall from former experiences that a good way to forget about your own issues is to help others – there is always someone whose needs are greater than yours. I therefore began by getting involved in befriending and helping local elderly and disabled people through a group called ‘Bucks Angels’ (it is no longer in action, but I do still visit and care for some of those I befriended in that time). I am very grateful particularly for an older lady named Trixie, who was herself writing a novel and inspired me to begin.

I also decided that rather than allowing myself to become depressed and defeated about the inevitability of climate change, the annihilation of most of Earth’s precious and unique species of flora and fauna, and the massive political corruption behind the destruction of our local Chilterns area of natural beauty (AONB) through the white-elephant high-speed railway project that is HS2, I would instead join other ‘rebels’ in my local Extinction Rebellion group and work alongside fellow Stop HS2 activists to do all I could to raise the alarm and bring these matters to light. Although such activism may or may not eventually succeed in changing things, what has definitely made a change for me in my own mental health – particularly in combatting climate despair – is not only actively doing something about it, but also meeting and regularly engaging with other passionately like-minded individuals.

I also joined a few creative MeetUp groups – specifically the Shoal of Art group and the Wednesday “Draw Each Other” portrait group, which helped me to connect with other visual artists such as myself. Although I chose to study English and Creative Writing and follow a career in journalism and media instead of becoming a full-time professional artist (being the eldest, I had much more pressure to ‘achieve’ something career-wise – although in fact I have never really been THAT career-oriented, as writing and art have always been my real dreams), I have actually always been torn between writing and art. Both are actually an essential part of my being, and indeed my mental health has also suffered through being a blocked artist (I will talk about this next in a forthcoming blog post on Mental Health and Creativity).

By connecting with other artists through these in-person and online MeetUp groups – and subsequently by joining other writers online in the London Writers Salon – I began to regain a sense of meaning and purpose outside of work, as well as developing new, healthier work–life rhythms based around my participation in these groups. I am indeed very grateful to my fellow creatives for reminding me of my true values, and for holding me accountable to fulfilling my other avenues of potential.

I found joining MeetUp groups to be a true lifeline during times of social isolation through working from home or being temporarily out of work

Engaging with these positive, supportive community-oriented social activities has helped to reorient my values and thereby improve my sense of self-esteem and self-acceptance. After all, “It is not good for man [woman] to be alone” (Gen. 2:18) – we are NOT machines; we are humans, and we do need human contact. Even if that contact is only online, as it has been during lockdowns, connecting with others is still vital to our senses of self, meaningfulness and value.

Having learned how vital such practices are to my own mental health, I continue to make time for these groups regardless of whether or not I am working. They have become a true lifeline. As a result, I have generally found that my mental health has actually thrived throughout the entire on-off Covid lockdowns – with a particular boon being that, having joined the online London Writers Salon group, I am now finally writing the novel I have always wanted to write.

So for me, having responded to that warning dream and chosen to become positively and creatively connected with others, the lockdowns have been quite a positive and productive time for me, with many new friendships acquired along the way. However, had I not already applied these practices, it would likely have been quite challenging.

So to all those who are still struggling with a sense of isolation, I urge you to find ways to connect positively with others, whether in person or online – of course online groups are not quite the same as being there in person, particularly for a physical activity such as dancing, but even joining an online music-listening group such as the online Co-Beat Party salsa DJ sessions or Salsa Lockdown Radio has helped me to maintain the sense of being energised through salsa-related social connection.

I have also frequently turned to nature for solace, which is often recommended for combatting mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness. Even before lockdown forced most of us to stay at home and be limited to walking near our homes as our only option for exercise, I began going out for regular walks in the woods behind our home, exploring local parks and wild areas in an effort to connect to nature. In the absence of human company, this was often my main comfort, particularly when my sojourn was graced with interaction with a creature in the wild or other walkers with their dogs. A brief “hello” or superficial chat about the weather at least broke the monotony of whole days alone at a computer, and reminded me I was still a member of the human race.

I also often found that simply focusing on one small, beautiful thing in nature – for example, a bug, a bird, a beautiful tree or a single strikingly coloured leaf – and silently giving thanks for that single beautiful thing, always helped lift my spirits. My husband always says, “If you’ve had five minutes of a day that was good, you’ve had a good day” – and there were plenty of days where those fleeting moments of absorption in a beautiful leaf or bird were truly the only good five minutes of my day.

“My husband always says, ‘If you’ve had five minutes of a day that was good, you’ve had a good day’ – and there were plenty of days where those fleeting moments of absorption in a beautiful leaf or bird were truly the only good five minutes of my day.”

Over time, the simple daily act of walking in nature and finding one single thing to give thanks for became rooted in my being, and together with the other practices mentioned above, it meant my heavy fog of depression began to lift.

However, I have also realised there are times our minds simply need to rest, and that I should not fear ‘down’ times any more than the good times for this reason. Just as the seasons demonstrate how the Earth itself needs a time of ‘death’ and rest throughout the winter before it can return to the exuberant busy-ness of summer, so do we as humans need such times of rest – whether that is taking time out for reflection regularly on our own as above or having a forced rest such as redundancy, loss of a loved one, or a period of illness or even breakdown.

In truth, it is during such fallow ‘resting’ times that the deep work of renewal and restoration beneath the soil takes place. As the book of that great Biblical sufferer, Job, says, “There is hope for a tree. Even if it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail” (Job 14:7), so I have come to appreciate these times of rest or non-work as a gift from God and be grateful for them instead of endlessly striving against them, knowing that this ‘season’ will eventually change.

I also found that through thanking God in advance for work and the income I needed, verbalising and visualising it as already being provided even before I see the result, has been a powerful way to turn my anxiety and financial worries around. Speaking it out loud – even if only to a seemingly empty room or silent trees – also helped lift my spirits tremendously. Not only that, but it has always in the end brought results: usually after a few days or weeks of practising this, my situation would turn around and I would get a new commission.

However, if I ever get too cocky or imagine I can make it on my own without maintaining a humble, daily reliance on God, I usually end up right back on the ground with my face in the dirt until I remember to look up and restart that process of thanksgiving. As is often said, until we learn our lessons, we are usually doomed to repeat them – in my case, it may have taken several years, but now these practices are truly daily disciplines and effectively keep me grounded and always hopeful. Which is a heck of a lot better than the alternative, I can assure you!

MAIN TAKE-AWAYS

  • Find ways to get involved and interact positively with others, whether through helping out with a local charity or voluntary group, or by joining an online group with a creatively oriented social focus – it is infinitely more productive than wasting time scrolling on social media.
  • Cultivating an ‘attitude of gratitude’ – whatever your faith or belief system – will help you get through the dark times.
  • Take time out to meditate on nature – it can restore your faith when all seems lost, humans let you down or you simply feel overwhelmed by the stresses and strains of modern life.

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