Emails, meetings and mental health

20/05/2020

During Mental Health Week, I’ve been reflecting on the challenges posed to our wellbeing that enforced home working brings.

I’ve been thinking about how, throughout time, humans have had to adapt to change, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly. Charles Darwin worked a lot from home.  He worked on his theories of natural selection and evolution from his home, Down House, which is in the London borough of Bromley.  His theories hypothesise how species grow and adapt to change, and much of our working life is about change.   However, adapting to technology in the workplace isn’t always easy, and it’s often regarded as an electronic version of its predecessor, and causes a lot of stress and worry in the process. 

Take email, for instance.  When I approach my working day, my instinct is still to treat email as I would a visit from the postman.  With a degree of excitement, or possibly dread, I’m tempted to open the post before I do anything else.  I may then possibly get sidetracked from my to do list, and tackle the most recent email.  I may feel a sense of satisfaction from doing something, and might add it to the to do list in order to get the satisfaction from crossing it out as done five seconds later.

However, my blood pressure may rise when I see dozens of emails and meeting requests arriving in my inbox.  Add to that a few of them written in the wee small hours, without the normally courtesy of face to face interaction, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

Many of us will be feeling more tired during this pandemic.  Part of this is due to our brains being in a more highly alert state, and part of it is due to the change.  Another element is so many Zoom or Teams meetings, where it is hard to read visual cues, and we have to concentrate a lot harder.

So what have I learned to try and do differently, to help my mental health particularly at this time, and encourage my colleagues to do?

  1. How I email others – read through a response for tone and being succinct, and don’t send it at 1am, otherwise I could be part of a working hours culture that isn’t healthy. Working at home during a crisis situation means taking breaks too.
  2. Planning my meetings better – I book meetings in 25/55 minute blocks so that there is the intention of having a screen break, and I write out the points I wish to say or have an agenda, so it is more focused. I’m trying to have fewer meetings, particularly VCs,  so I can focus on the actions, and produce some quality, thought-through work.  Cal Newport, in his book “Deep Work”, writes about how we can work with more intensity and focus if we have fewer interruptions.  
  3. Using the telephone – everything doesn’t have to be on Teams. Going back to Charles Darwin, he paced his garden when he wanted to think, and walking and talking to someone is often a good way of working through ideas, and it helps prevent back pain.
  4. Take a lunch break and get some fresh air – it’s often a good time to reflect Accept that things are different, often imperfect, and your usual schedule must be adapted. Things take longer – going out to get food involves lengthy queueing, and school age kids need their parents right now too. 

I will feel mentally stronger emerging from this period having learned some things, improved some others and considered what I will be taking forward and what I will be leaving behind. 

By Caroline Roberts, Head of People Operations