There is no doubt that this year has pushed all of us to the absolute limits. In every way possible. The uprooting of normal life to a much more restricted way of living. Sacrificing simple norms that for generations we have taken for granted. Businesses turned on their heads and rushing to pack a decade’s worth of change in a matter of weeks and months.

Its also put a huge toll on our mental health. Its been in the spotlight for a while, but after this year and the challenges we’re still trying to overcome, its time we had a serious discussion about it.

Intense pressure

We have been hit with a multitude of problems since March. Lockdown for two months, shutting down our businesses. Reopening in May, which was essentially all of us starting our businesses again from scratch. An avalanche of demand which caught us all unawares which has meant we have probably all worked double or triple shifts since May to now. That’s six months of foot-to-the-floor work. Then we had and continue to have demand issues across the supply chain which compound lead times and makes trading relationships difficult. We’re working through a second lockdown now in England and the other devolved nations are living through their own versions of COVID restrictions. All of this since March, and its still only November. This is way too much pressure for any human being to have to cope with in the space of 8 months.

The road ahead continues to be uncertain. Even with vaccines on the horizon, its likely we won’t see much change in conditions until April of next year, which means we’ll have been living through this for more than a year. All of what has gone before, and all of what is to come, is going to take a huge toll on our mental health.

Doing what I do, I have lots of conversations with lots of different people all the time in various parts of the supply chain, and I can say hand on heart that there are a lot of people struggling out there. I include myself in this. And when we talk about mental health I think its important to be honest. There have been two periods during this crisis where I have struggled myself. Work pressures have been insane. We started a new business. Boredom from restrictions. It got to the point where all I wanted to do was to hide away from the world and stay in bed. It would get to the point where internally I was so messed up and stressed that even though I had a mountain of work to do and deadlines to meet, nothing would get done as my head would be in such a mess it would create a mental block and then compound the issue.

Thankfully I am out of the other end of one of those periods. But it wasn’t great. It was grinding, depressing, boring and very hard to motivate myself. I suspect that there are a few of you reading this who have gone through the same struggles this year. There might be some of you who are going through it right now and some of you who might be going through something worse. If you are, then let me tell you that it’s absolutely OK to feel that way. Even if it doesn’t feel like it is, I promise you it is. And there will be an end to it.

Some call it burnout. A physical and mental state where you find yourself unable to function at the most basic level. Unable to complete the most simple of tasks and end up being completely unproductive. It’s not a good place to be. Over a long period of time this can become very damaging to us as people, and as our industry continues to operate through intense pressure, we need to make an active effort to look after ourselves and each other.

No badge of honour

I saw a tweet the other day which talked about the need to stop glamorising over-working. I agreed with the sentiments massively. I retweeted it, and that retweet got a ton of interaction as well. It’s a good point, one I’d not thought about before. But it’s true. When we talk about how busy we are and how little we’ve slept we tend to boast about it. Whilst it’s admirable that so many of us are willing to put the hours in, we forget that our bodies are not built for the work levels many of us have been working to.

The end result is where I found myself a couple of time this year. Exhausted and down, actually doing less work during longer days than I actually would have done had my own mental state been better.

We have to take this seriously. We have to realise that our mental health is just as important as our physical health and that when all is not well, we have to treat it like we would a physical injury. The effects on our positivity, life experience and productivity at work are just as real as the effects a physical injury has.

That starts with taking the time to look after ourselves. That sounds simple, but it’s actually one of the more difficult things to do. Modern life is permanently connected, which means we’re working more if even you don’t realise you’re doing it. Answering an email or text, taking a phone call for example. Whilst this is admirable if it continues over a prolonged period of time you’ll quickly find yourself in a rut where all you do is work and increase your stress levels. Then your wider life starts to take a hit and then the spiral gets worse. Take the weekends off. Have at least an hour per evening to switch off and doing something that isn’t work-related. Go for a walk, paint, do some gaming, cook. Do whatever allows you to switch off.

We also need to make time to look after each other. That starts by talking. Asking how we are. Being open and honest with our colleagues and employers. It means employers putting in place measures to make sure people’s wellbeing is front and centre. It means shaking off stigma and embarrassment about mental health. This is still a male-dominated sector in many places and men are not the best when it comes to opening up. We prefer to bottle it up and pretend its not a problem even though it is. That has to end. There’s too many suffering in silence. And we can help change that course by creating a workplace environment where people feel comfortable enough to talk to each other. There is absolutely no weakness in talking.

As an industry we have to be more understanding of the pressures we’re all under. Communication isn’t great right now, there are supply chain issues, lack of products, long lead times. This is the situation we’re all in and we have to do what we can to cope until things smooth out. As frustrating as it can be to not get what we want, there are people on the other ends of the phone or emails working as hard as possible to get positive results. Be patient and be kind. Work with people to try and find a solution.

We’re heading towards Christmas and some well earned time off. So as we do, let’s use it as a time to appreciate what we have and look back on a year that has pushed us to the limit. Let us look towards 2021 as a (hopefully) less stressful year and a year where we learn to look after ourselves and each other.

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