Stop reaching out and come say hi
The term ‘reaching out’ makes me feel queasy. It was one of those lines that seemed nice when you first see it, then you realize it’s one of those phrases that’s lathered into smarmy emails from strangers that lurk within the merely-skimmed-through array of unsolicited sales InMails. It’s like watching the word ‘wellbeing’ slowly but surely erode in the age of Goop.
Whether you call it ‘reaching out’ or just the good old ‘get in touch’, it’s been happening. From the message from an old colleague you’ve worked with, or that freelancer you’ve commissioned so much work from. My former line manager and mentor called me the other day for no particular reason but to say hi. As Marie Kondo might put it, these conversations ‘sparked joy’ in more ways than I care to explain. It’s up to you if you want to call it a ‘long-term view on building your professional network’ or just, you know, ‘having a nice conversation with interesting people’.
Needless to say, this is set in the bleak backdrop of a global pandemic. We are living through an agonizing mix of a health crisis, economic uncertainty and seemingly endless political scandals. The above dialogues I’ve had all invariably addressed the ‘current situation’, from the polite ‘I’m doing fine, actually’ all the way to ‘I can’t deal with watching the news right now’. At times, the wording shifted from ‘how are you doing’ to ‘how are you coping’.
So, how are you?
In the architecture industry, it’s been reported that four in 10 architects are struggling with mental health during the lockdown. This is a field that already suffers from widespread mental ill health, exasperated by a work culture that encourages burnout, starting as early as university.
We won’t be able to single-handedly solve any of these issues. But there is a lot we can do as individuals to address and shift cultures within the workplace towards a slightly kinder environment for everyone. There’s currently much talk about our collective willingness to bring in more personality and authenticity into dialogue at work in this pandemic-ridden era, and this is one thing I’m hoping will stick in a post-pandemic world.
There’s no need for us to pretend to be a therapist, but taking a brief moment to have meaningful conversations with people beyond the ‘touching base’ and the ‘review the action list’, being mindful that we are all emotive creatures with moods and a life outside of work in our day-to-day interactions will play a small but significant role in chipping away at the stigma associated with talking about mental health and ill-health.
It boils down to good listening
Creating a bit of space at work empowers people to be who they are – some might call it ‘bringing your whole self to work’ . It can be as simple as asking how people are, and actually listening without judgement.
Particularly during lockdown, the response could be delightfully inane, or it could be far weightier. One person might tell you about how their first attempt at sourdough last week was an utter disaster, and there’s this mildly foul-smelling slop in the kitchen that is quietly awaiting its inevitable and tragic fate of being tossed in the bin. Others might tell you directly that they’re absolutely exhausted, having to home-educate their three screaming children and still having to submit that planning application on Tuesday. But importantly, if we’re simply asking how someone is doing or feeling, the answers are all valid.
Every person has a different perspective on what constitutes a meaningful conversation. It may well be that the short chat about whether or not to throw away that poor sourdough may have lifted that person’s mood because it was the only time that person was able to speak to someone today because they’re isolating on their own.
Lead by example
Time is tight in every workplace. There is constant pressure for more and more productivity, and we’re persistently bamboozled with notifications from multiple devices (while you scroll past the Twitter post telling you to try the Pomodoro technique). Personally, I think we should always make time for a bit of empathy.
This is all the more significant when you are in a position of leadership, where you have the power to influence everything from the mood in the room to the fundamental culture of your team or organization. Your ability to listen to and empathize with your employees has much to do with whether an individual coming back from maternity or paternity leave feels welcomed back. Whether someone with a disability is able to reach their full potential. Or whether someone who is LGBTQ+ or BAME feels like they are an equally important part of an organisation and work culture. And talent retention – yes, in all its diversity – makes sense for business.
Empathy is powerful coming from a leader. Just look at Jacinda Ardern.
This basic principle of ‘just saying hi’ can be applied to internal communication. Not long after the lockdown, my colleagues and I at Hawkins\Brown launched a weekly internal mini-newsletter about wellbeing, which includes everything from where to access your EAP to alternatives to your daily Joe Wicks (Jane Fonda-esque aerobics, anyone?). Or that cute Instagram post where Bob and Roberta Smith is, quite literally, singing to you.
It’s nothing substantial, but it’s a gentle reminder to reflect on your own health, whatever that means to you. Sure, it’s an investment in terms of time resources in the comms team. But from the informal feedback we’ve got from colleagues, it seems that ‘just saying hi’ matters a lot more than we realise.
About the Author
Renée O’Drobinak is currently a Communications Coordinator at the architecture practice Hawkins\Brown. Her multifaceted career spans contemporary art and communications in the built environment. After her studies at the Slade School of Fine Art and the London College of Communications, she headed the communications function of a conservation architecture practice, where she championed Employee Ownership, publishing articles and participating in panel discussions on how to build a healthy, collaborative working culture. She is a part of the 2019 cohort of mentees from the BME PR Pros program and the co-founder of Ladies of the Press, a contemporary art duo specializing in direct audience engagement in the cultural sector which has been commissioned by organizations such as Tate, Southbank Centre and Camden Borough Council.