This year has been the most challenging of my career, and it’s okay to admit that

For National Mental Health Awareness Month, Nick Foley opens up on the challenges of 2020 and beyond.

Content warning: This article discusses mental health.

If you or someone you care about needs support, please contact:

Lifeline 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467
MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

This year has not turned out to be what many of us were expecting.

When news about COVID-19 first surfaced back in December of last year, most people could not have envisaged the disruption that would follow. For many Australians, the magnitude of COVID-19 became painfully obvious in mid-March as grim-faced politicians held daily press conferences filled with news on the severity of the virus and it what it meant for everyday life.

For me, this year has been the most challenging I’ve faced in my career. It’s made the global financial crisis (GFC) back in 2008 look like a walk in the park. More importantly, though, I’ve seen first-hand the impact the coronavirus has had on the team that I work with.

Each of us responds differently when a crisis hits. The old adage of ‘fight or flight’ rings true.

Although, a distinguishing factor with the COVID-19 crisis has been that the options to take flight were not readily available due to the lockdowns put in place. The rapid redeployment of office workers was unprecedented. As news crews filmed COVID patients gasping for air in hospital wards in Italy and New York, it became obvious why not being congregated closely together in an office was wise.

Mental Health The Big Anxiety Mumbrella Health Marketing Summit

Communication is vital to support mental health

What’s less obvious is the impact on our mental health. We should not underestimate the effect that all of this uncertainty has had on the workforce.

Back in 2009, Gavin Larkin helped to establish a not-for-profit suicide prevention organisation. It centred around the line ‘R U OK?’ (Are you okay?). A decade on from this initiative, we’re living in a time where asking our colleagues if they are okay is increasingly important.

In the work environment, this is particularly so given that most of our current interaction is now on Zoom or Teams. All the usual mechanisms of having informal catch ups with our teams have been reduced, owing to the remote nature of our new way of working.

Asking colleagues if they’re okay has been pivotal in breaking down the stigma associated with anxiety and depression in the workplace. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder what would facilitate more candid discussions on how we’re feeling during this roller coaster of a year.

Could it be that we’ve progressed from ‘R U OK?’ to ‘It’s OK’? One of the unexpected benefits of the disruption brought about by COVID-19 for me has been the way a number of my team have opened up to me. It feels more okay now to do this.

There’s been a real sense that we’re all in this together. Such collectivism has fuelled a level of honesty that is as refreshing as it is rewarding.

Before COVID-19, the line between work and home was more clearly defined. The sudden shift to working from our lounge rooms and kitchen tables has brought about a change that has blurred the lines between work and home. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’ve invited our colleagues into our homes and, by doing so, it’s become much more acceptable to bring your authentic self to work. This sets the stage for a much richer dialogue with our co-workers.

With the positive change in closeness, I’ve found myself broaching topics with my team that that a year ago I wouldn’t have. This has been an unexpected bonus in a year of turbulence. I’ve discovered that’s it’s okay to talk about how I’m really feeling. It’s okay to let others know if I’ve had a bad night’s sleep. It’s okay to share if I’m feeling anxious. And, it’s suddenly much more okay to concede that I don’t have all the answers.

By taking the first step in an open discussion, I’ve found that showing vulnerability about myself, and genuine concern for my team’s wellbeing, has prompted discussions where one of my colleagues talks candidly about a concern they may be encountering. By talking about it together, we can then identify new ways of moving forward.

October is National Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s a good time to not only check in with your colleagues on how they’re feeling, but to be more comfortable talking about how you’re feeling. After all, the more we help each other to feel it’s okay to discuss being anxious, uncertain or down, the greater the likelihood that we’ll create an environment that prevents any of us from sliding into a place that can be tough to recover from.

If there is a silver lining to this crisis, it’s that we’re building a work culture where it’s okay for people to let you know when they’re not okay.

Nick Foley is the Southeast Asia Pacific and Japan president at Landor and FITCH


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