I arrived at work the other day after a rough night’s sleep. I’d been dealing with some personal problems and had spent the night working through an absolute breakdown of my sense of self. Despite feeling upset, exhausted, emotional and worried, I went to work, hoping that I would be able to hold it together for the day.
I carried out my usual jobs as well as I could, endeavouring to keep a firm grasp on my feelings and my thoughts exclusively positive. After a while, my manager approached me.
‘How are you doing today?’
I carried on working, worried that he might be asking because he’d noticed that something was wrong, or was subtly telling me that I wasn’t working very hard. But then I decided to be honest – my place of work is not the sort of environment that encourages bullshit.
‘I feel emotionally wrought, but I’m coping.’
The words had dropped out of my mouth quicker than I could monitor them and when I heard them out loud, I blushed and filled with regret. I should have said ‘fine’, I thought, Nobody likes it when people are actually honest about how they feel.
I tensed up as he walked to the other side of me and began stacking the same shelf as me.
‘Do you want to talk about it?’ he asked gently.
‘It’s ok,’ I whispered, ‘I mean, I can’t. If I talk about it, I’ll cry and, you know, we’re in society and you’re not supposed to cry in front of society.’
We shared a smile.
‘Ok, well if at any point you need to talk, or if you want to go and have some privacy to cry away from society’s eyes, just let me know, ok?’
He walked away and after a moment or two, I turned around. Had that interaction really just happened? Had I openly confessed to a senior male member of staff that I was struggling and had he really just spoken to me with that level of instant compassion and emotional maturity? Had my emotions, my difficulties just been totally validated in one short conversation? In that moment, I still felt sad, and I still felt exhausted, but the fear that I might be ‘crazy’ for feeling that way dissipated. Parts of me began to fit back into place and the total loss of clarity I had suffered the night before began to lose its hold on me.
Having been drastically invalidated by my colleagues in the past (I was once handed a tampon by a male manager after he found me crying in a walk-in freezer), I am deeply grateful to now work in a place of such high emotional intelligence. Knowing that I am safe at work to feel how I genuinely feel stops me from second-guessing my emotions. I don’t feel like I need to monitor myself or wonder why I’m not living in a constant state of enthusiasm and joy. And through that freedom, in a sort of ironic way, I do tend to feel at least content at work all of the time.
It is clear that this sort of emotional environment also fosters deep connections within the company I work with. Everyone works hard without being pestered or heavily managed. We all get on well – I’ve yet to hear a single bad word said about anyone I work with – and productivity manages to stay high while everyone seems to still have a lot of fun. And I imagine that customers entering our store and seeing a bunch of happy, smiling faces feel the same love that we feel, enhancing their experience.
The compassion that my manager showed me has clearly trickled, nay, gushed down from the very top. The owners, the board of the company and the CEO are all genuinely loving, kind people. I once burst into tears in front of the store manager and she offered to work my shift for me if I wanted to go home. In how many companies across this country would you find that level of empathy, of understanding, of love? I have never before seen or heard of a high-ranking manager happily willing to do the work of their subordinate employee, the very idea seems so against the ‘natural order’ of our go-getting society.
On the other side of it all, there is what my manager could have done, and didn’t do the other day. He could have pulled a face, showing me that ‘fine’ would have been a way more appropriate answer than ‘emotionally wrought but coping.’ He could have laughed or shrugged or said ‘O…K…..’ He could have replied with any number of tiny, subtle reactions that would have added up to let me know that I was wrong for feeling how I felt and that there was no place for me in his compassion circle.
And where would that have left me? Instead of my sadness levelling and my maddening thoughts dissolving, the opposite might have happened. My fear that I was losing my grip on reality might have exploded, bursting through every neuron of my brain, searching for evidence that he was right to laugh at me. The stability I had built up in myself that morning might have come crashing down, and I might have had to go home, feeling all the while that everyone was judging me for leaving work because of personal problems. And it might have cost the business time and money, to pay my sick leave and to find someone else to fill in for me for the day.
In CoLiberate’s empowering Ted Talk last week, Sarah discussed the loving treatment she received after breaking her toe and wondered if she would have received the same treatment had her injury been not physical, but emotional or mental.
When you twist your ankle at work, no one judges you for your inability to cope. Your colleagues understand that you are hurt and they do everything they can to help you. They get you a chair, some ice and a cup of tea and empathetically tell you jokes about times when they also twisted their ankles. And they send you home to heal and when you return a week later, nothing has changed. They look at you like they always have and they trust you in the same way they always did. They don’t stare at your ankle or wonder how long it will be until you twist it again. They don’t worry about your ability to walk beside customers or to walk on your own.
But what about emotional injuries in the workplace? What if, instead of twisting your ankle, you suffer an emotional crisis at work? You’re crying, people are around you. What do they do? How do they react to your sadness, your fears, your confusion? And how do they treat you after? Weeks later, when you feel healed, do they remember? Do they think about it? Are they counting down the days until you break down at work again?
I feel privileged to say that the people I work with understand emotional and mental difficulties as well as they understand physical ones. I work in an emotionally safe place where my feelings are valid, accepted, and listened to. And that means far more to me than job satisfaction or the money in my pocket at the end of each week. But not everyone is as lucky as me. At Coliberate, our dream is that one day, every workplace will be as safe for every employee as my workplace is for me.
Learn more about CoLiberate’s Mental Resilience and Emotional First Aid course for the workplace.