By Tom Dent-Spargo, Comms Worker and Connect Helpline Worker.
It’s Stress Awareness Month so I thought I’d share my own recent experience with that particular fiend. It can strike us all, from such varying factors; mine came from a menagerie of sources in my personal life and I had to take action when it threatened to bleed into my work life.
Stress is insidious in the way it just stalks you unseen, biding its time, until it pounces. It can feel like you’ve been taken by surprise when it hits, but when you look back the signs were there; it’s not always easy to see them at the time, as is so often the case. We’re often blind to things affecting us that we might be able to see in others with far greater clarity. Towards the end of last year, I took time off work for stress – some of you may have noticed how quiet our social media went in December. There were a myriad of factors at play causing my stress, and work wasn’t actually one of them, but something had to give so that I could rest and recuperate. I wasn’t able to see the signs at the time until I remarked upon them out loud to another person in my supervision, noting how tired I was that I didn’t have the energy to read or even to passively watch television. A moment of realisation hit me then: I was Stressed™.
It was all too easy to just point at the pandemic and living in lockdowns to wave away the fatigue. Through all of the period of feeling that exhaustion, doing my LSLCS work, whether that was on the comms side or on the Connect helpline, provided a lovely break. Until I felt it creep into a Connect shift. Not on a support, I must add, but I felt it during a quiet spell between calls. It deeply unsettled me to feel like my lovely Connect shell had been permeated, and I felt the need to address that immediately as I can not, in any good conscience, do a helpline shift if I’m not in the right place. I wouldn’t be able to help people properly, wouldn’t be able to be truly present with them or congruent with them. This was the sign I was able to see and to admit that there was something more at work in this old head of mine.
Through this experience, I feel like I have been empowered to be able to ask for support, to actually look out for number one, not something that comes naturally to me.
A month off and I came back to work just before the end of the year. It was very difficult to assess how and when I would be ready to return, the fear gripped me that I would try to do it too early and just collapse in a heap. LSLCS were wonderfully supportive and I was able to get back to it with no problems in the end. I was very fortunate to have an understanding employer. I mean, it’s obviously in their interest to look after staff’s mental health and wellbeing but still, I count myself very lucky, especially as I needed the support in the first place just to request the time off, to allow myself to be vulnerable. Through this experience, I feel like I have been empowered to be able to ask for support, to actually look out for number one, not something that comes naturally to me. I am getting better at that though! And that feels very similar to our person-centred ethos, that providing the space to just talk things through allowed me to work it all out, to put the pieces together and for me to take the steps I needed to. Being simply instructed to take time off would not have provided the learning experience or the greater understanding and self-reflection.
Stress can come from overstretching yourself, from not knowing or feeling able to do something just for you. I would never support someone on the helpline if I didn’t feel like I could give 100%, but it was another step to be able to take myself out of a shift entirely, to confront the fear of letting the side down.