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Team mental health: Be helpful by habit

Tai Kedzierski
GNU/Linux and free software enthusiast; organiser of the Edinburgh Language Exchange; Computer Smacker General; ramen guzzler, quiche murderer. A friendly cat.
Updated on ・3 min read

It seems it is mental health awareness "week" (really, should be year round, right?) and I'm seeing articles darting around the feeds, all with (mostly) insightful ways companies can better look after their employees mental health and stress. There is, though, one tale I'd like to recount.

Long time ago, I was on a tech support team which went through a bad couple of months, with some very difficult and long-running issues, frustrated customers, and over-subscribed next-tier colleagues who were having difficulty supporting us in turn, and we did not get over the effects of this for a long time. It devolved into a self-reinforcing spiral of negativity around the workplace (think "the customers are (expletives) useless" but with very ferocious expressions...); it was not helpful to our customers, and very bad for team morale. I myself was probably really toxic to be around sometimes, especially after a call.

I can't remember what I read or how I hit on the idea, but it dawned on me that the problem could be addressed, in part at least, by my own language and attitude - it could simply start with me.

I started actively addressing my teammates' quips with "hey, the customer is probably under pressure. We're supposed to be there for them. How can I help you?" Internally I was fuming in agreement, but I decided not to vocalise it; and offer something positive instead, focusing on what I could do myself, rather than be goaded by the frustration.

On hindsight, I think our Team Lead had already been trying to do the same, but with his workload could not be quite as systematic about it as I had decided to be. Honestly, I had an excess amount of work myself. But the interaction with my fellow teammates, in constructive conversation, did me good as well. We were each rubber-ducking for eachother and being mutually supportive. In turn they'd offer insights, fresh eyes, on the problems I was trying to solve too.

After a few weeks I noticed that we were being much less frustrated - there were still many difficulties, but at least we could breath around eachother again, and speak to eachother candidly, without feeding the negativity. It wasn't a "positive think" mentality by any means - I'm still wary of those to this day, people who insist on "being chipper" at me when I'm going through depressive bouts - but it was certainly a "habit of helpfulness" that was, itself, helping us out of the abyss.

That's pretty much it. If you wanted it in some proverbial form, it would be summed up as

Speak no evil. Help your neighbour.


This cannot - indeed must not - be policy-mandated or "strategised," though. Doing so can have the wrong effect. Imagine getting to a point where you're just struggling to keep your mental state together, and a mandate to "always be positive" is handed down from on-high: not only are you having a horrible time, but you're expected to be happy about it?

This is a ground-up approach that we each need to take on if we sense a cycle of negative thinking taking hold in our own teams. You don't have to be the Wonder Woman or Super Man for your colleagues.

Just help whom you can, when you can, and hopefully they too will be in a position to help break the cycle of negativity.

Reactions on the back of a postcard please :-)

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