Sunshine and rainbows and killer rabbits

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that some (all?) of you may have noticed at some point that our workplaces can take a toll on our mental health. Sometimes it’s due to things beyond our control (I remember a dreadful July a few years back in the Burn Unit that was no one’s fault). Sometimes it’s that painful stretch between work responsibilities and “life” things that can’t wait. Sometimes it’s a result of unhealthy behaviors or personalities that permeate the culture of a place. And, of course, in years like this one the factors influencing how we’re all doing when everything is uncertain are almost innumerable and the workplace is at best one piece of that.

I’ve also realized that when we are working as a leader that we have a responsibility to support the well-being, including the mental health, of those around us. That means actually listening when they’re explaining why they are struggling, and figuring out what solutions can be implemented. It means communicating effectively, perhaps to the point of having a sense of overcommunication. It means making sure that people are getting the down time (away from work responsibilities) that they both need and deserve. Sometimes it means being vulnerable- authentic- by admitting what’s challenging you or what changes you’ve had to make to adapt to “new normal”. Sometimes it’s having your child or your cat Zoombomb that conference call.

As it should have pre-pandemic, supporting your team’s mental health means asking people how they are doing and actually probing for an honest answer to that question. And when you DO get that answer that tells you they’re actually not okay, it’s your job to provide a more nuanced response than, “It will all be great!”

Positivity is an important feature of resiliency, and we all naturally want the “feel good” of being around people who are positive and make us feel good. However, sometimes the strategy of pushing positivity can have the opposite impact on the intended recipient, who will instead find that they are disappointed that they’re not happy, or frustrated thinking that they might be missing out on something that’s great. There’s a recently described concept of toxic positivity out there that is simply not helpful.

So, how can we support our friends and colleagues who might be struggling right now when we want to give them a gentle infusion of hope while we recognize it’s not all sunshine and rainbows? That’s when we try to achieve support and validation instead of, well, gaslighting people we’re invested in (HT: Mel Charbonneau, both for the reference AND for the acknowledgement of her own struggles right now).

Sometimes we all really just do need that reminder that we’re walking each other home, and some days that includes sitting with our friends and colleagues who are having a tough time. It’s okay to not be 100% okay, or even 50% okay; let’s offer ourselves and each other some extra grace. Don’t be a killer rabbit.

(Bonus points if you got the somewhat obscure Monty Python reference; here’s the clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail if you didn’t.)