Following media coverage of an event I spoke at late in 2017 in Wellington, I was honoured to be approached by the Australian Golf Course Superintendents Association to speak at their Australasian Turfgrass Conference mid-2018. I will be delivering the plenary talk, alongside my friend and colleague, psychologist Dr Karen Faisandier, on the topic of men’s mental health and alternative ways of thinking about and potentially addressing the problem. Below is a copy of my conference proceedings submission, offering a good overview of the paradigm I work under here at Being Human.
Men’s Mental Health: Recharge
We live in an age and under an economic model where, irrespective of the industry or sector, demands (productivity, outputs, expectations) continue to increase at a time when capacity (staff, budgets) continues to erode. We all live in a world where everyone feels entitled to, and expects, more for less. This ongoing tension between demands and capacity is a primary source of both acute and chronic stress in and out of the workplace.
Most people view their core capacities in the workplace as knowledge (an understanding of the problems at hand and how to solve them), experience (pattern recognition) and time. Knowledge and experience are built up slowly and progressively over our careers. Thus, in an acute, day-to-day sense at least, we view time as our core capacity. This notion is reinforced by the fact that many people give their time in exchange for an hourly rate or some other payment-for-time.
Where and how we direct our discretionary time is most often driven by our intrinsic values. To value something is to place importance on it. A groundskeeper who values the sense of achievement and recognition from delivering a good product will dedicate more of their discretionary time to completing a task than the person who is perhaps indifferent to such values (who will put their time elsewhere).
When demands increase we often respond by allocating more time to those demands. We work longer hours per day, and perhaps more days per week, as we attempt to meet the demands of the situation. Given that time is a finite resource, when one area of our life demands more time, so it goes that time must be taken from another area of our lives.
Time is fixed. Nobody can create more time capacity for themselves. As we attempt to balance all the time demands of our lives, be it work or family life, a sense of urgency is created. We begin to live our lives in a rush, and we operate under the notion that we don’t have time, that time is running out, and we are too busy for anything extra beyond the demands of our most immediate focus.
The stress from living under a near constant sense of urgency is often compounded by the intrinsic values conflicts created from living a life dictated by the clock. For example, a groundskeeper is likely not just be a keeper of grounds. They will also likely be a husband, a father, a mentor, and a mate. They may have come into the profession for the enjoyment of working outside, or for a sense of being close to a sport they are passionate about. But they now find themselves spending more time indoors answering emails and undertaking extensive administrative duties due to budget cuts.
Such responsibilities draw them away from the very roles which fuelled their sense of fulfilment in their careers. It also takes time and focus away from their personal and family life, friendships, and other important connections. The man who prided himself on being both a good partner and groundskeeper, is no longer feeling like he is doing particularly well with either role, leading to a sense of frustration and relationship conflicts (where those relationships can be with partners, family, friends, and work colleagues).
To meet all the external demands being placed on such individuals, time which may have been allocated towards personal physical health behaviours is now diverted to dealing with the most urgent & pressing demands, e.g. less time is given toward sleeping, physical activity, and taking time out of the day to recharge energy with nutritious food.
Such demands of life rarely remain acute. Indeed, it is the hallmark of life in the modern world that living in a constant state of rush and urgency is the norm. Feeling distressed, anxious, frustrated, and defensive all while living in near constant survival (fight or flight) mode is not a sign of personal weakness, but rather it is the normal response to such a stressful environment.
Demands exceeding capacity, living life in urgency, feeling constantly busy, values conflicts, and the subsequent chronic stress leading to ever higher rates of poor mental health – clearly the way we are working isn’t working. We cannot keep operating in the same way and yet expect a different outcome. And we certainly cannot continue to frame a cultural and environmental problem as being one which rests on the shoulders of individuals to quietly deal with themselves.
But the revolution will have to wait for another day. More pressing for most individuals is how they can deal with the current situation as it is in the here and now; how they can change their world before focusing on how to change the world. It is my belief that this all begins with individuals shifting their operating paradigm from one based around the non-renewable capacity of time, to the renewable capacity of personal energy.
Energy is our key currency, not time, a fact illustrated with the following examples:
- Imagine a couple who are on a dinner date with each other. A good date might be one where the couple are focused and attentive toward each other, where their emotional and mental energy is high. A poor date, however, is one where both are tired, distracted, and not engaged with each other. They might spend most of their time scrolling through their phone. The time spent with each other could be the same in both examples, but the energy and the relationship quality is totally different.
- A young employee might turn up to work every day and put in the required number of hours on the job. But due to staying up late every night, drinking too much alcohol, and not eating enough nutrient-dense food, their physical energy levels are low. They put in the time but not a lot of productive work gets done in that time.
- A business owner has been splitting his time between being on the job and in the office doing admin. They make the decision to focus solely on running the business rather than working in the business and they now have more time on their hands. But doing paperwork and accounts all day gives them no sense of fulfilment and they soon become deeply unhappy, unmotivated, and distracted.
The above are examples of life that we often measure by time but where it is our energy which is ultimately more important. This energy comes in four broad forms:
Physical Energy – Your Foundation Energy
- The energy we derive from quality sleep, eating well, and being physically fit and strong. We might understand this energy when the key elements are lacking, e.g. when we are under slept, have skipped meals or have eaten under nourishing food, or our fitness is low and everyday activities become more draining.
- Prioritising sleep, preparing good meals and taking our time to eat them, and working on physical fitness are some of the first aspects of our lives we let slip when we feel under time pressure.
“I’ve got too much to do to go to bed early – I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
“I haven’t got time to sit down for a meal – I’ll grab something quick later.”
Emotional Energy – The Energy of Your Feelings
- If your physical energy is the quantity of your energy, then your emotional energy is the quality of that energy. Your emotional energy is your feelings of positivity or negativity toward a person, place, or situation.
- Connection with people, places, and a sense of purpose, giving and receiving appreciation, being recognised and feeling valued, all fuel positive emotional energy.
- We quickly feel negative when we are disconnected from the people and places we care about, when we feel a lack of purpose for what we are doing, when we feel underappreciated, undervalued, and do not get recognised for the energy and effort we put into something.
Mental Energy – Your Focus Energy
- The energy we get from being in a state of focus is often referred to as being in the zone or in a state of flow.
- Mental energy comes from having a clarity in our roles and a clear path to settle in to deep work. It comes when we can manage our own time and make clear decisions, when we can work deeply rather than broadly, and when we can respond rationally and creatively rather than reactively.
- The most common distractors to our focus are technology interruptions (messages, emails), meetings, and the myth of multitasking.
The truth is that many jobs require the ability to be both focused and to drop everything and react as required. These jobs have a high mental energy drain baked into the cake. It becomes paramount, then, that taking regular time out to rest and renew your thoughts is as important to a role as being ready and able to react. Few individuals and organisations really grasp this concept, do not make and protect spaces and environments where this mental energy can be renewed, leaving many people feeling drained and frazzled.
Spiritual Energy – The Energy from Fulfilling Your Passions and Purpose
- Where we direct our energy, particularly our pool of discretionary energy, is largely dictated by the deepest intrinsic values we hold, what we feel passionate about, and having a sense of purpose to what we do.
- We operate with a sense of grit (perseverance in the face of challenges) when we are driven by a sense of fulfilment and passion.
- Understanding our own personal beliefs, values, ethics, and what we derive our sense of fulfilment from, can all help in setting physical, emotional, and mental energy recharging behaviours.
While all four levels are interrelated, most of our behaviours start from what we personally value. For example, very few people value being healthy for its own sake. But many people value the social recognition that comes from appearing healthy, so they will seek to signal this by going to a particular gym, or by wearing certain clothing types and brands. Improving health and wellbeing may possibly be an outcome of this signalling (though not always), but health per se wasn’t the initial driving force.
If you derive value and fulfilment from your work and/or family life, you can use this understanding as a motivating force for making better decisions regarding your physical, emotional, and mental energy. Feeling like you have more energy and capacity to do the thing you are passionate about only serves to reinforce this passion.
Should there be a mismatch between feeling a sense of purpose and passion for something (e.g. your career), and your ability to renew and sustain your energy for it, burnout can often occur. In common Human Resources parlance, passion is referred to as engagement. Someone who is giving a lot of discretionary energy to a task or role is said to be highly engaged (passionate) with what they are doing. Generally, this passion is reinforced by a positive feeling (e.g. recognition – a form of emotional energy) derived from performing the role.
The flip side of engagement is disengagement. When someone is disengaging from an area in their life, they are attempting to conserve their energy. Individuals begin to pull back from areas in their life which they view to be non-essential at that time, all in an attempt to maintain their mental energy in a role or task during a time of stress (demand > capacity). They become focused on doing only what they need to do in order to avoid the most immediate consequences (e.g. not meeting expectations in a job, potentially with financial consequences) or to fulfill the most important value (e.g. continued immersion in social media in order to get and maintain recognition from “followers”).
Feeling under pressure at work, for example, a person may pull back (disengage) from spending time with family or friends or directing any effort toward other behaviours which may ultimately sustain their energy and keep them going. They may focus only on what needs to be done to avoid negative consequences such as failure to deliver, negative judgement, or loss of income. This becomes an unsustainable strategy, however, because many of the things a person disengages from are the very aspects of their life which recharge their energy pool.
Operating in a state of stress and under urgency leads to rapid energy depletion, and can leave people feeling anxious, frustrated, angry, and defensive. Think of how we feel when battling heavy traffic and needing to be on time for an appointment. When this state becomes chronic, it heightens the risk for burnout. In our modern world, much of the common depression being seen is actually this burnout state of energy depletion.
Depression could be considered the body’s normal response to our internal batteries running flat. We lose our motivation to engage in adequate self-care, we lose the ability to feel positive (and sometimes even to feel negative), we can no longer focus on anything for any amount of time, and we lose all sense of passion and fulfilment from life.
States such as burnout and depression can therefore be viewed as a form of reactive disengagement. Using a smartphone as an analogy, you will get several warnings that the battery charge (energy supply) is running low. If you fail to plug the phone in to recharge, eventually it will go into a power saving mode (energy conservation), disengaging immediately non-essential systems and applications. Continue to deplete the device’s energy and eventually it will turn itself off before it goes flat (burnout). The device cannot be restarted until it is plugged into an alternative energy supply and has recharged to a sufficient level of power (energy).
A phone switching itself off to protect its remaining 1-2% of energy is reactive disengagement. To avoid this occurring, we typically responsively disengage our precious devices. We monitor their charge for the early signs that their energy is running low, and we set to recharge the energy supply before any disengagement (reduction in capacity) occurs. A small period of disengagement dedicated to recharging can leverage a much larger period of engagement (use).
Applying the above analogy to humans, many aspects of burnout and mental health issues (such as anxiety and depression) are tied up with our energy running low. But this can be avoided by accepting that we require our own energy stores to be recharged and setting aside time to responsively disengage from the high drain environments and to engage in energy recharging behaviours.
Few of us would dream of letting our phones and other such devices run flat. We are careful to ensure they are regularly recharged and we never make the excuse that the phone is “too busy to be recharged right now”. Yet we rarely apply such principles to ourselves. Once we understand, however, that the work-life balance we all seek is built on our personal energy levels, and that there are serious downstream consequences (e.g. mental health problems) to ignoring our energy, it becomes imperative that we adopt such a paradigm, not only for ourselves individually, but also for our workplace cultures and environments.
Nearly every sector in every industry is faced with the same problem of demands exceeding capacity. And nearly every workplace and organisation is trying to deal with these problems in the same way, through some sort of time or stress management. It is both my belief and experience that a focus on building cultures, systems, environments, and behaviours that lead to the recharging of our energy capacity will not only change the way we are working for the better but will also help to stem the tide on many of the mental health problems people are facing.