Some time ago I worked at a mediation and dispute resolution service in London. During my time there I served on the service’s mental health network committee. One of the committee’s objectives was – within a network of large and busy offices – to promote and develop safe ‘reference points’ for those struggling with psychological issues at work. The idea was that these reference points – essentially staff volunteers – would be available for confidential discussion (not counselling) of the staff member’s particular difficulties at or around work.
In this way, staff who just needed someone to talk to could choose to discuss work-related difficulties. These might be workplace stress, fears of particular workplace situations, or concerns about confrontation during appraisals. And of course there are many other sources of workplace-related stress. The idea was that such issues could be raised privately and discussed confidentially without having to go through a more formal and perhaps intimidating process with a senior colleague.
MIND, the mental health charity, has recently issued an updated version of its leaflet about mental health in the workplace ‘How to be mentally healthy at work’ (this can be purchased from MIND for a nominal price or downloaded free from their website at http://shop.mind.org.uk/shop/booklets/797). This covers the causes of stress related to work, how to recognise it and how to deal with it.
As usual from MIND, there is good practical advice here. But some of this will take practice and a readjustment of thinking patterns. For example, being more assertive can be one way of claiming greater control over how you are and how you feel at work. But how do you ‘be’ assertive if it really doesn’t feel like who you are? Experimenting with new behaviours can be revealing, but it can also be scary. For example, what if assertiveness feels unnatural to you (which it probably will at first)? Are you then in danger of forcing assertiveness in a way that comes across as aggressive and which might therefore undermine your credibility?
The workplace can be many different things. Your work in essence may be interesting, fulfilling, and/or diverting. But of course that’s not all there is to it. There may be unpalatable politics and frustrating administration aspects that are extremely hard to separate from your work’s positive attributes. In my experience, both with counselling clients and in the workplace itself, many workplace difficulties for individuals arise from a sense of their having insufficient, or even no, control over how things are for them at work.
Accepting what you can and can’t control, recognising what the rights and wrongs of the situation are, deciding how far (if at all) you might be prepared to have higher principles compromised by workplace demands, and, ultimately, deciding whether you are actually going to make any practical changes, all require learning a more proactive approach to how you handle yourself. Some of us might be motivated by the late English novelist Arnold Bennett’s reminder of what actually is within our field of control – ‘You are not in charge of the universe; you are in charge of yourself.’