Looking after your Mental Health!

By on October 8, 2021

Since the Industrial Revolution, when we started commercial coalmining in earnest, the greatest fear of coalminers was being poisoned by carbon monoxide. It was the biggest killer in what was already a dangerous occupation. The problem with carbon monoxide was that it was undetectable. The miner couldn’t see it, hear it, smell it, taste it or feel it. It didn’t trigger any of the senses in the body.

John Scott Haldane is credited with coming up with the idea of taking a canary in a cage down the mine. The canary was more sensitive to the odourless and colourless gas than humans, it breathes far quicker than a human and needs such vast quantities of oxygen to fly.

Therefore, it would be the first to collapse in the event of a toxic environment happening and that made it perfect as an early warning system in the mine.

Male canaries will sing constantly in search of a mate, so when the miners couldn’t hear the canary, someone would check on it. If it was at the bottom of the cage everybody evacuated the mine immediately as it was a toxic and dangerous environment.

The happy news was if they got out in time, the canary could be resuscitated and brought back down the mine tomorrow (see image below).

Of course, today we don’t have work environments where carbon monoxide is as big an issue. But whatever the work environment we are in, there are toxic elements to the workplace that can cause us harm.

© Cartoon by Joep Bertrams, The Netherlands

You will know far better than I what those are in your work environment, but I do know that we can make comparisons with stress in today’s workplace and carbon monoxide back then in the coalmine.

Both are invisible and only detected when they become a problem. Stress in itself isn’t a mental health issue; it is merely a state of being. But too much stress, or for a prolonged time, is a definite precursor to burnout and overwhelm, resulting in us not being able to function at our best.

And stress doesn’t just come from the workplace. We can feel the overwhelming effects of stress and the resulting mental health challenges in areas such as home life, particularly when in lockdown. Home schooling, caring for elderly people, fears we hold for the safety of our families if we bring coronavirus home from the workplace. Fears of bringing coronavirus to the workplace from home. The sense of guilt we might feel if we were responsible for either of those events.

Many of us feel some guilt around seeing our friends and extended families struggle financially when we are able to continue working (when we can continue to work and aren’t shut down in a lockdown).

© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

It is really important that we take the time to figure out:

a) What is my ‘carbon monoxide’ – is it stress? Is it our workload? Is it exhaustion from managing working while in lockdown? Is it something else that makes our environment toxic to us?

b) What is my ‘canary’ – our warning sign that all is not well? Is it my temper? Am I drinking more just to cope? Am I anxious and worried all the time? Am I not sleeping? Am I focused at work and not being a danger to myself or my workmates?

c) Has my ‘canary’ stopped singing? Can I even see the signs in me? Very often it is someone else (work colleague or partner) that will see the signs I am displaying before I ever spot them in myself. Or I may see them in a workmate but don’t think they have noticed yet.

d) Is it okay for someone to ‘check on my canary’ and tell me, or for me to tell them? Or am I just prying and being nosy?

Just starting the conversation with my mates or partner can be awkward, but it may be necessary. Maybe I just ask them if they are okay?

Knowing somebody cares enough to check-in may be all we need right now. But we won’t know until we ask.

#1 International Best-Selling co-author of What the Hell Do We Do Now?, an enterprise guide on navigating out of Covid and into the new normal.

Mental Health Expert and Strategist | Board Advisor | Trainer | Facilitator | Certified Resilience Coach

I make it easy for leaders to have the hard conversations around mental health. I train their teams to look out for each other and I bring people back from burnout.

Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
Lifeline Australia 13 11 14
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Mark Butler

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