It’s a phrase that has been popularised by comic books, but it comes from a 1st/2nd century poet by the name of Juvenal, who coined the phrase “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes” which is the Latin for “Who will guard the guards themselves.” In Juvenal’s work and in popular culture this often speaks to corruption and power. Who holds the people in power to account for their own misdeeds and lapses in judgement?
In a People space, the phrase takes on a different meaning that thankfully is less insidious, but a little more heartbreaking. If you are the safe space for the company, where do you turn when you need that same support? If most of the emotional labour in the company is outsourced to the People team, who checks in and helps them decompress? The answer that is often suggested is that ‘they help each other’ but one car that is running on empty can’t top up the gas of another. Or, it can with the last few drops that it has but ultimately they’re both just running on fumes. That answer also suggests that there are other People people, which isn’t always the case. The People team is often the team with the least investment and is also the first to get cut when times are tough, which leaves potentially just one person with a lot of responsibility and very few outlets.
Organisations the world over are waking up to the fact that supporting a person’s mental health means good business. Studies have shown that a well designed mental health programme leads to greater engagement, healthy attrition and reduced sick days. The only challenge here is that those who work in the People team are often responsible for facilitating these programmes which once again leave them inside the community but also outside at the same time.
There can be a sense of shame or guilt that is associated with People people feeling stressed or worn out by the very people they’re there to support. The first step for creating space for this is to acknowledge that it will happen. In the same way new parents are told that they won’t always find their children delightful rays of sunshine, it is important to acknowledge that sometimes you won’t be charmed by the people at your company. It doesn’t make you bad person and it doesn’t mean you don’t love your job. It’s a natural part of the ebb and flow of work. The time when you need to be concerned is when that starts to be more frequent than your positive and motivated feelings, as that’s when you know you’ve run out of petrol and running on fumes.
So how do we prevent that? Lots of mental health initiatives are based on recovery rather than prevention. I think the largest risk to People people over the next few years is a lack of self awareness and misinformation as it relates to their own mental health - followed closely by the inability to talk about it.
There are some tools - like the stress container model - that assess the baseline stress in life e.g. bills, relationships and work, and then the stressors that flow in and out of life periodically e.g getting sick, an unexpected financial burden and then the ‘tap’ that allows that stress to flow out of you in a healthy way. It gets you to really think about what’s going on in your life and what helps restore you. It also sends home the message that you are in control of this, rather than being a victim of life’s circumstances or waves of your company. You can’t stop the waves from coming, but with the stress container model you can learn how to surf.
This information then becomes a baseline for you to know if you are in a positive or poor mental health state. A data based approach to things helps you have an objective view of your own behaviour. How someone uses it will vary, but if you know for you to feel happy, satisfied and relaxed you must have a conversation where you get to talk about your feelings, a dinner with your friends and one hour of alone time - if you monitor how often you do or don’t do that you can ask yourself the question why. You have a metric from which to question yourself, or if you have a manager who is open to it - discuss it with them.
If you’re choosing not to do those things - and accepting it is a choice is the first step - you have to ask yourself what you’re getting instead of choosing the thing you know is right for you. I know what good nutrition is - but I choose steak because I get the social aspect of going out with my friends. Does that put me further from my long term health goals? Yes. So constantly you’re making trade offs over what you’re prioritising. You’re also creating boundaries and making it clear that you’re worth the time and space you need to be your best self.
Boundaries can be tricky when you’re a People person. Even if you’re practising good habits and behaviours, it can be tricky to say no when it’s 7pm and someone Slacks you asking if they can talk. Part of ‘who watches the watchmen’ is having a scaleable approach to this emotional work. If People people are the only ones skilled at active listening, creating psychological safety and coaching they will forever be the place that people turn to when they need assistance. This isn’t scaleable as you will never have a big enough team to truly support the rest of the organisation. So you train others to be deft at that kind of work. You hold them to account to be able to have the skills the organisation needs. You may have to write a business case for the time and training but if you’re able to measure how often this is happening the case should write itself.
When it is suggested that these skills should be more widespread, that empathy shouldn’t only be housed in the People function individuals can sometimes worry and quash the idea before it has started. While it may be tiring to carry the secrets, to clear up the messes and be the shoulder to cry on, it can sometimes feed the ego to be the one people want to talk to. That while at times you can feel resentful for it, it gives a serotonin boost at the same time as you’re the one people turn to and a fear that if that stops being you then perhaps your position is not secure. Fear based motivation in the long term just compounds the risk of burn out as you’re activating survival instinct on two fronts. It’s healthy to want to keep your job but not if it means you perpetuate unhealthy environments to achieve it.
It’s important for People people to ask themselves who gets the best of them and are they happy with their answer. If you’re aware that in your workplace there isn’t support for you, how do you create that support for yourself? How do you feel worthy of the time, tools and boundaries that are needed to ensure you’re not surviving but in a place where you’re operating at your optimum? A car that is running on fumes will move, but taking the time to pull over and refuel, to rest? You’ll get a lot further. In the absence of watchers, you have to watch out for yourself and be the example so that the others need you less.
Head of People, Monzo
8th April 2020
A huge thank you to Tara for sharing her incredible thoughts on this. To hear more from Tara, check out our podcast episode.
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