Sunday 31 May 2020

Doing Press-ups - On Mental Health and The Importance of Awareness

I was recently challenged by a friend on Facebook to do 25 press-ups (push-ups) per day to raise awareness of PTSD, anxiety and depression. In my typical 'once-a-tester always-a-tester' approach I decided to check out whether this was a real thing or just a secret new way to infer my banking passwords. What I found surprised me. The challenge is genuine and seems popular in Australia and New Zealand. The supporting pages that people have set up hold some frightening stats.

  • For example 45 per cent of Australians will experience a mental health issue at some point in their lives (The Push Up Challenge Australia)
  • 14.3% of New Zealand adults (more than half a million people) had been diagnosed with depression at some time in their lives (Mental Health NZ)

Similarly frightening statistics can be found elsewhere too. Mental health issues are one of the biggest health concerns in Europe and the US.

  • In the US nearly half of people will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime and 5 percent of adults will experience a mental illness in any one year, equivalent to 43.8 million people. Mental Health First Aid
  • The latest in a one every 7 year survey in England (2016) found that 6.7 people of every 100 have attempted suicide in their lifetime (and that's just in a private home context not including prisons or other institutions) (Mind UK Statistics on Mental Health)

Mental health issues are now the third most common health problem in the UK yet, perhaps because of their very nature, these problems are much less openly discussed than other health issues.

Raising Awareness

It's perhaps a strange subject to write about in a blog on software development, and a difficult one too as it's such a complex subject. I'm writing this for two reasons.

  • One is to promote awareness and to encourage discussion of the subject. We need to raise awareness of mental health issues in the same way that we would with any other serious illness that is having such a widespread impact. There's a need to discuss mental health issues more in the software community simply because we need to discuss them more in every professional community and avoiding discussing it through fear of the complexity of the subject simply makes it harder for people who are suffering to talk about it.
  • The other is raise awareness that there are steps we can all take to improve the situation. There are things that we can potentially do to avoid or mitigate certain problems through the way we treat ourselves and others. This applies to us as individuals but is also particularly the case for leaders. Through more considered leadership we can eliminate practices in the workplace that may encourage or exacerbate mental health problems and help to reduce the frightening statistics that go with them.

Improving your own mental health

One thing that you may have experienced with the restrictions in place with the current pandemic crisis is a tangible sense of slowing down. Just today outside my local shop a lady said to me that she felt that everything had slowed down and it was a good thing, I had to agree. For many the recent restrictions have given them an opportunity to take stock of what's really important.

This need for taking stock is something I've been aware of for some time. A key moment came when I read The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Anchor which is a lightweight but readable introduction to the field of positive psychology applied to a work context. There are some strong takeaways in the book, an important one for me being that individuals can exert control over their own sense of well-being. Before I read the book I considered optimism to be a fixed genetic trait that for me meant inevitable periods of dwelling on the negative. Anchor argues that we can change our own levels of happiness and optimism, these aren't hard-wired, with real benefits for both mental health and productivity.

Here are some things that I've done, mainly since reading Anchor's book, to improve my mental wellbeing that I can recommend

  • Spend money on experiences not possessions. Putting your precious time and money into great experiences, particularly shared ones such as with family, rather than material goals will provide more happiness for your money, not least because there are many wonderful experiences out there that are free to access.
  • Stop pushing the next goal. As a good tester my goal was to be a good test manager, then I wanted to write a blog, then contribute to books, then I wanted to speak at conferences. Even at this point I was raising the bar and looking at the next step, should I be keynoting, or setting up a consultancy? Focusing on goals is a positive step but there's a risk that, rather than enjoying your achievements, you just raise your personal expectation to a new level of dissatisfaction.
  • Be wary of professional social media. For a time I enjoyed twitter and communicating with others in my field, however it can become addictive and drive unhealthy comparisons. A few years ago one of my children said they liked my new job as I wasn't on my phone the whole time. My sad realisation was that half that time I was actually scanning twitter as I didn't want to miss anything. Be aware of "The Facebook Effect", don't compare yourself to how others choose to present themselves as it's a long way from reality, and treat it like gambling - when the fun stops, stop.
  • Keep reminding yourself why you are fortunate. Every day for 4 years I've written in a notebook three reasons why I'm insanely fortunate. Good health, a great job, a wonderful family and home, colleagues I respect and enjoy working with. By thinking less about whether I should be keynoting or working on a book right now and more about how lucky I am with what I have, I find I'm less anxious about things I'm not doing.
  • Play music. At 35 I started to learn the classical guitar, at 40 I picked up the trumpet again for the first time since school to join my kids in a brass band. I now have two skills as an adult that provide focus, flow and pleasure, not to mention many psychological benefits including potentially making you smarter

These are personal things that work for me, but they are based on sound psychological principles. As with exercising regularly, different activities may work for different people. The important thing is to appreciate the value in regularly taking practical steps to look after your mental well-being as well as your physical.

Focusing on mental health as leaders

No matter how much we do ourselves, there will always be work influences which impact in ways that are outside our control and the workplace is a significant one for most people. The way that we lead can therefore have a big influence on the occurrence and impact of mental health issues. As the UK HSE website page on workplace stress states -

"Although stress can lead to physical and mental health conditions and can aggravate existing conditions, the good news is that it can be tackled. By taking action to remove or reduce stressors, you can prevent people becoming ill and avoid those with an existing condition becoming less able to control their illness."

So by reducing stressors from people's work leadership can have a potentially high impact on mental wellbeing. Even just being open about discussing mental health in the workplace is a good starting point. According to the ACAS mental health advice website

"If staff feel they can talk openly about mental health, problems are less likely to build up."

Happiness is Productive

The good news is that working to reduce stress doesn't have to impact productivity. Again referring back to the Happiness Advantage perhaps the key principle that's underpins the whole book is massively important in the approach to mental health in leadership.

"Happiness drives success, rather than success driving happiness"

Based on findings from positive psychology research at Harvard, Anchor proposes that happiness is a 'precursor to success' and actually drives success and higher performance rather than our achievements at work driving our happiness.

In order to promote productivity and encourage innovation and success, the last thing we therefore want to do is create a culture of pressure and anxiety. Instead encouraging a happy team is a stronger precursor to success. If leading towards team happiness is also a drive towards productivity and success then we can adopt a real focus on the mental wellbeing of employees without any risk of criticism of sacrificing productivity.

But Am I Doing the Press-Ups?

I'm fortunate that I've never experienced a mental health problem, and yes despite what I've said above I do consider the primary reason for this to be luck.

As with physical illness many of the conditions that affect people will be completely outside of their control and only professional expert care and support over time can begin to help. There are steps that we can take to promote mental wellbeing. I wouldn't expect these to prevent serious conditions just as regular exercise won't protect from breast cancer or road traffic accidents, but everything we can do to promote awareness and understanding is a step in the right direction.

Given the state of my Facebook activity I was never going to raise awareness of PTSD, anxiety and depression by posting 25 videos of me doing press-ups but hopefully writing about it may have more impact. And yes, I will also be doing the press-ups (I'm 8 days in so far with 17 to go). Whatever form you find easiest to raise awareness of mental health issues, now is as good a time as any to do so.

References and Further Reading

Image by alex-mccarthy on Unsplash

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