In conversation, with Dr Caroline West
DOMINICA WILLIAMSON & MICHAEL DOBRIJEVICH
As the world continues spinning at the same speed it always has, Covid-19 has somehow changed the pace. Without warning, it has thrown us a curveball covered in microscopic spikes that has affected each and every one of us. In a pendulum of change, we are barely grasping the nature of our environments, before they swing another way, and while everyone is bound together by a unanimous feeling of re-adjustment, each individual, family and organisation are experiencing the effects differently.
Recently, we had the pleasure of hosting a round table discussion for a number of executives and industry professionals, with a very special guest speaker and friend, Dr Caroline West. Driven by a wealth of passion and knowledge, Dr West discussed fundamental techniques that we can use to harness this change as an opportunity, rather than a hindrance to personal growth and leading a balanced life.
From Yoga in India to Covid-19 clinics in Tea Gardens.
“Covid is one thing, but what I’m really interested in is how we protect our resilience and how we look after our mental health because we’ve always experienced loss in certain departments”.
Dr Caroline West is a highly respected doctor and media figure with a particular passion for lifestyle medicine, mental health and wellbeing. With over 30 years of medical expertise (and a wizard on the Ukulele), she generously took the time to join us to discuss ways to look after ourselves and others during this challenging period; both professionally and personally. Dr West has dedicated a large part of her career to ensuring people have the capacity and tools to harness and control the things in our lives that build us up, and learning to let go of the things that wear us down.
Like so many of us, Caroline’s travel and life plans this year were compromised; and instead of moving to India and perfecting the delicate art of the downward-facing dog; she found herself in rural Australian communities (Tea Gardens, and subsequently Broken Hill) personally testing and working with vulnerable communities affected by Covid-19. Since then, she has been working in Covid clinics, studying the effects of the disease (both medically and mentally), and helping communities combat the vast ramifications of “not just a health crisis, but a time of disruption”.
Naturally, as things have been somewhat flipped on our heads, she has had her work cut out for her.
Sourdough and singing.
Combatting the turbulence left in the wake of lockdowns, working from home, office/home balance, homeschooling, alcohol consumption, sex and exercise levels, screen time and all the jazz that comes with adjusting to our newfound way of life is no mean feat. So, as the inevitable re-shifting pursues, we all require fresh thinking. Thinking that starts with you.
“Across the board we’ve never seen such a time of community bonding, sharing information, collegiality and agility.”
– Dr Caroline West
Our neighbours are now artisan sourdough bakers, our daughters are learning Russian, our colleagues are picking up guitars and exercising their vocals. The prodigy of it all is somewhat foreign to us and as we all find our feet and march through, it is important to pause for a moment and not let the chaos get the better of us.
The balance board.
“I am finding it increasingly harder to differentiate between the work me, and the real me.”
Doing business from home can feel a bit like watching a band’s live set on YouTube, it does the trick but it’s just not quite the same. It’s safe to say, some of us are really struggling to create boundaries between work and home. Pre – pandemic, people would clock off at 6 pm, speed home blasting their favourite rock music, walk through the front door and put the day at the office behind them. During the pandemic; it takes 6 steps to commute from your desk to your room and 10 to get to the kitchen. It can be hard not to take that call at 9 pm, because the whole day revolves around calling. It was in wide agreeance during the discussion on the night, when one guest commented;
“I don’t think I’m working harder, but it feels harder to work”.
Some people are really feeling the burn of separation.
On the flipside; others felt quite the opposite. The integration of home/office made some feel like work was more stable. An interesting observation from an employee relations exec with us on the night, was that although face-to-face engagement is down, there is something ironically intimate about a zoom call that brings to light the intricacies of our colleagues’ personal lives. The background speaks volumes. We are seeing children haphazardly walking in on recruitment interviews, dogs barking, a glass of red wine in the bottom corner of the screen; as one exec said – “It’s humanising”.
“I think there will be a complete revolution in terms of how we work”
– Dr Caroline West.
Though the future of WFH is not certain, one thing is; workplaces are learning to be more flexible and accommodating. Interestingly, a study done in the US found that 82% of participating firms will be more adaptable with WFH in the future, and only 6% companies said nothing will change. With a range of responses from those at the discussion table, most felt a balance would be ideal.
A common element of conversation was that the lessons about wellbeing during Covid need not be confined to this period alone. One employee relations manager shared how the newly introduced wellbeing program has caused mental health to now be at the forefront of all exec meetings. Similarly, another has experienced an influx of staff calls; he has had to deal with rapidly changing needs ranging from family crises to substance abuse – “every single case is entirely different”.
While leaders are all busy thinking of how to re-design work settings and how to accommodate to changing staff needs, it’s important to take a step back and remember something important – you.
When uncertainty knocks on the door, anxiety often follows. So, how can we build resilience to cope with this so that we don’t burn out? And how do create this thing called ‘balance? Dr West shared a few techniques and strategies.
Put the oxygen mask on yourself first.
‘It seems contrary to what you should be doing in a crisis, which is putting the oxygen mask on yourself first, but if you don’t look after yourself in this time you won’t be much use to anybody else.”
– Dr Caroline West.
The instability of the now, will inform how we operate in the future and it goes without saying that it is in our best interest to ensure those around us are faring ok. Check-up, touch base, realise changing behaviours and patterns of staff disengagement. However, sometimes leaders often put the wellbeing of others before their own – feeling a deep responsibility for their team.
By taking the time to look after yourself first, even when it feels counter-intuitive, you will feel a greater sense of control over your day. Keep connected with social supports. It’s ok to seek professional help. We are all going to have days or periods when we are not feeling our best – its normal to experience a range of responses and emotions in regular times, let alone in global pandemics.
We are adaptable, pro-active and resilient beings that often instinctively want to look after the people around us… In order to do this, we need to focus on ourselves too.
Beware the 24-hour news cycle.
Constant news updates are pouring in from all angles at all times of the day. With snappy headlines of ‘World breaks 14 million cases’, it’s hard to keep a cool head and separate yourself from the events transpiring throughout the world. Upon reflection, we found that basically everyone in the room checked the news at least three times a day, waking up, going to sleep, coffee break, middle of the night ‘children and news check’…
Dr West noted this will make you “adrenalized and it will contribute to a sense of anxiety levels – associated with less sex, and feelings of depression”. Importantly; be cautious of where you’re getting your news from – curate reliable sources. More so; moderate. That starts with having a news-free day, just one! You won’t miss out on something today that you can’t hear about tomorrow.
“We have to validate the feelings of being down and focus on the things you can control”
– Dr Caroline West.
Throughout Dr West’s talk, one thing particularly stuck with me; control the things you can, try to limit your intake of what you cannot. Thinking about the global pandemic can sometimes feel like having your feet are stuck in cement. In what feels a bit like a chaotic world, it is difficult to feel that same sense of control we, as humans, are often so fond of. If you have a strategy for puppeteering fate, please let me know, but for the rest of us, it just ain’t possible.
We all have a few things that make us feel good, right? Swimming, guitar, surfing, running… you get the idea. The key is to intentionally narrow yours down something and lock in a routine that you have total influence over. It will help stabilise and settle the feelings of unruliness. Pick a time and an activity and make it yours.
Validate the down feelings and be mindful that with little steps we can pace ourselves in a way that does not erode a sense of achievement, but rather aid it. Have some moments of downtime, listen to a meditation app, train your brain to relax and switch off for a moment. Trust me, (or Dr West), it will help.
Thank you to everyone that joined us and shared your experience, wisdom and good company – it was a pleasure to learn from and laugh with you all.
A huge thank you to Dr Caroline West, who taught us that in times of difficulty it is important we:
- Learn to put time and care into ourselves, taking a breath and slowing down.
- Respect others as distinctive individuals who have differing needs and be forgiving.
- Master the art of control – take up an activity that will stick with you as a routine, so you feel like you are taking control of your life, not the other way around.
- Monitor your news intake.
In doing so, we will not burn out but rather grow, adapt and move forward with a stronger sense of self so that we might use this time as an opportunity rather than a limitation to our long term mental and overall wellbeing.