You don’t have to be mad to work here
And so we come to the end of another year of teaching. And for some reason, hopefully entirely unconnected to me personally, mental health issues are rearing their heads at work. At times it seems like the entire team is batshit crazy (and I should stress -baddaboom- that I actually mean that in a loving sense rather than my usual haughty dismissive judgemental tone). In all seriousness, I have never been more aware of the high levels of stress, anxiety and outright depression than in the recent past. Do you want to hear my views on the whole business? Well, if you read on, you’re going to whether you want to or not.
Anxiety is a problem for many. I don’t just mean that slight churning feeling you get in the pit o’ yer tummy. I mean the strangling sort that you get when you are convinced that the very next moment life as you know it will be irredeemably fucked. The sort that means you can only survive on plain yoghurt and Marlboro cigarettes. The sort that stops you sleeping and extends your nightmares throughout the full waking experience.
How does this anxiety manifest itself in the workplace? With sudden bursts of hostility. With tears. With harsh words, quickly spoken. With silence. With scowls. With exhaustion. With a face of abject misery. People look utterly defeated. They look jaded. They look heartbreakingly sad. Or angry. Or frustrated. Or confused.
Depression is not unheard of at work either. It can sometimes hide behind sickness absence. Migraines occur. People are silent. Withdrawn. Apathetic. They leave earlier. They put headphones on. They keep their heads down and never really have anything to say. Inside, they may be feeling that they are an absolutely worthless piece of shit that does nothing useful or has anything helpful to offer. In many cases, they may draw the logical conclusion from this line of thinking that they would be doing the world a favour if they just removed themselves from it. They know that they would be doing themselves a favour because the pain and suffering that they are experiencing and know for a fact will experience for the rest of their days is absolutely unbearable.
Anxiety and depression are accompanied by their cousin stress. Stress is a much maligned thing in the world of management. It seems to be a trigger word that employees bandy about willynilly any time that they don’t like something. I have to teach a beginners’ class?! Oh! My! God! I think I’m having a panic attack! I’m really S-T-R-E-S-S-E-D! The use of the S-word appears to be a threat to management: it’s code for your-actions-are-having-an-adverse-effect-on-my-mental-health-and-litigation-awaits-motherfucker. People get stressed by having to start work earlier; by having to finish work later; by not having a desk to sit at; by being asked to help out with the marking; by having to teach X level; by being told that they have a meeting to go to etc etc etc.
BUT…just imagine that they really are stressed…imagine that the thought of teaching a class of beginners fills them with panic and fear; imagine that your timetable means that they now have to consider the impossible task of getting the kids to school on time without the assistance of an expensive child carer; imagine that the meeting puts them in a state of sheer panic because they have no idea what they might have done to merit a one-on-one session with someone of your stature and authority (OK…I had to exaggerate a wee bit on that one). Of course, you might rationally conclude that their fears are unfounded; that they should be capable of teaching whatever level; that no reasonable person would get so worked up over something so trivial. And what a wanker you would be.
Workplace advisor Sid Gotama once famously quipped that everything that ever has been, is and ever will be is the creation of your mind. This doesn’t mean that there is no reality; it means that there are billions of realities. Misunderstandings and conflict arise when we arrogantly assume (as I do repeatedly throughout this blog) that the only real reality is the one that we experience. And managers, I hope that I am not speaking out of turn, often experience other people’s mental health issues at work as “inappropriate behaviour” or unnecessary frustrations or people just being batshit crazy. In such ways are people’s fundamental suffering written off as them “just being a bit weird”. The fact that they somehow dredge up the superhuman force needed to drag themselves in the most agonising fashion possible into work is often overshadowed by the perception that they are “so bloody negative”. Their agonising over their utter worthlessness is compounded by other people’s view that they “make no effort to get on with other people”. Honestly, people, we (by which I mean “I”) are (by which I mean “am”) such a miserably inhumane bunch of cold-hearted bastards (render unto the singular).
Let’s be clear…mental health issues are simply health issues. For reasons that we are too pigshit ignorant to understand, people’s brains turn on them. This causes behaviour that those of us who have (to date) eluded such illness cannot understand. We idiotically assume that the person who rants seemingly unprovokedly at us is in full control of their behaviour and we rush to pass judgement. We fail to see that we are dealing with the symptoms of an illness rather than with the unfortunate patient who is being eradicated by it. It’s like tutting judgmentally at the persistent cough of the dying cancer victim who is sitting behind you in the quiet carriage of the train.
What to do? What to do? What to do? The answer is both simple and seemingly impossible. Uncover within you the wellspring of compassion that the weeds have grown over. It’s there. It “just” needs to be found, cleared and then plumbed. A useful strategy that I am falteringly learning how to develop is to assume that everything that people do at work – the hissy fits, the rudeness, the apparent slackerdom, the showcased aggression, the unreasonableness, the argumentativeness etc…everything is done with justification and that the real issue is that I am too ignorant sometimes to understand what that justification is. It behoves me, therefore, to expend a little goddamn energy trying to find out what I am too stupid to know. This means trying to understand the realities of the others and then exploring with them how we can work together to help them with the heavier weights that they find themselves having to bear. It also means being sensitive to my own inner bastard who pipes up from time to time saying things like, But it’s up to them to communicate with you or The way that they spoke to you in that meeting was utterly inappropriate or other such nonsense. I don’t want to smother that voice or to cut out its tongue. In many ways it may be right, but in far fewer ways is it helpful. So, I let it speak, I let it rant, I let it be heard, and then I turn away from it and try to do something helpful.
From time to time you may come across an utter bastard. The one who is calculatingly offensive and provocative. The one who abuses you for enjoyment, not because they are flailing around in a hostile environment and trying to save their own lives. This too is a “mental” health issue, just one that you are powerless to do much about. The fact of the matter, however, is that these people are a rare occurrence. All the books I have read to date advise the same thing – when dealing with psychopaths, the only effective response is to put as much distance between you and them as you can. This is more a reflection on the poor state of our medical knowledge rather than because the psychopath is such a terrifying monster. When faced with a hostile psychopath, we simply don’t know how to overcome the effects of their mental state on our world so we turn and run. Self preservation is a perfectly rational course of action. That said, the focus and drive of some psychopaths may be exactly what the job requires…so don’t turn and run too quickly!
There is a lot more that I have to blabber on about here, but I have forced myself enough on your generous eyes and I don’t want to overstay my welcome. I’d like to talk about how to manage people’s breakdowns and their irrational behaviour, but I am going to assume (rather self-indulgently) that you would be happy for me to save such thoughts for a future post. Of course, it is rather self-indulgent of me to assume that you are even still reading this post, but in case you are, my advice for now is:
- assume that all behaviour (no matter how “unacceptable”) has its justification;
- accept responsibility is on you to uncover what this justification might be;
- communicate supportively how you understand this justification, although you might not necessarily agree with it;
- provide support, guidance and resources that will help the individual through whatever torments life is subjecting them to;
- enjoy whatever holidays are coming your way.