To sum up how she feels about the work she does, Maggie Sawkins quotes Kahil Gibran: “Work is love made visible”.
For this edition of ‘10 People You Should Know’ I have the pleasure of writing about someone I have come to consider a friend in a short period of time. From shared interests on LinkedIn to lunch in a park in Chancery Lane to monthly catch ups about what we are passionate about, Maggie is a respected contact who brings a unique skill set and perspective to wellbeing work.
Maggie is a qualified mediator and business coach who is driven by a vision of a workplace where people connect and building meaningful relationships and support systems just as they would in their ‘personal life’. Her human-centred voice is one that needs to be heard so let’s get stuck in.
To kick off the conversation, I asked what ‘wellbeing’ personally means to Maggie?
“Since my own burnout, a breakdown in my mental health in 2003, serenity and peace of mind are very precious to me. If I need to perform at my best and undertake high levels of work and responsibility, I need to attend to the basics. I’m learning to practice self-compassion along with decent rest, healthy food, and water cooler chats. ‘We cannot give from an empty well.’”
And how does Maggie connect mediation practice to workplace wellbeing?
“I imagine a lot of us read the Metro piece on 6th August 2018, ‘Work pressure leads to loneliness for staff’. It quoted a study of 6,000 workers conducted for totaljobs.com in association with MIND, saying:
‘Six out of ten office workers say they feel lonely at work…nearly half (44%) said work pressure led to their feelings of isolation. One in four men and one in five women said they never confide in anyone’.
The key practice we can take from mediation is confidential, neutral, and compassionate listening. For example, once when I was called in to mediate within an embassy, I reflected back to a senior diplomat all the difficulties she was juggling and her whole demeanour began to change. She became more open to share the frustrations with colleagues that were causing her heartache and sleepless nights. Tolerating negative stress affects our mental, emotional, and physical health – it is not good for us.
When we as individuals are heard – truly heard and understood – without someone trying to change us, we begin to feel better. When she and her colleague met later that day, they began to re-write conclusions they’d drawn about each other, eventually acknowledge their differences, AND see their common ground. It was my joy and privilege to witness that shift so that the stress for each of them simply started to melt away.
These ‘conflicts’ might begin with a simple office move gone badly, but if things are left unsaid or misread, layer upon layer of assumption will build until people find themselves crossing the road to avoid a colleague at lunchtime.
By the time an external mediator is involved, it’s usually because nothing else has worked. In the privacy of the mediation room, people can say everything. I’ve witnessed high-achieving, super-smart men and women cry with relief at being able to ‘tell it like it is’.
The mediator has no investment in the outcome, is not reporting back (except key agreements and only with their permission), and is not linked to the business or their performance. Very often family and friends have gotten tired of hearing it, but for that person the stress has continued over months or years in some cases.
If you do nothing else, offer to listen in confidence at a time that works in a private setting and just let someone talk. And let them know what you heard, even if just the essence of it”.
Considering her experience helping people navigate through difficult situations, I thought I’d ask Maggie for some of her top practical tips on how to manage stress in the workplace:
“1. Break the isolation: Find somewhere you can offload without someone trying to ‘sort you out’. Take the risk to ask for help. I went back to a therapist (at my boss’s nudging), and found a group where I could identify with others. If you recognise you have a problem, you are not alone. Once you’re in the door, you’ll start to feel better.
2. Get into nature: Step out of the office… I aim to follow this advice whatever my mood. Melinda Messenger, talking about her depression said: ‘When in doubt, go out’. Get to a park and take in the trees and birds all doing their thing. Being in nature is never a waste of time; it reminds us that we exist beyond our work.
3. Spend your working hours with care: Allow more time than you think you need for each task or meeting. Being early for work is kind; take the time sit in a café near work to plan: ‘The first hour is the rudder of the day’. This allows us to ‘under promise and over deliver’ and builds esteem.
… In my own case, the overwhelm crept up on me. I’d taken on two in-work courses so that the casework was condensed into the remainder of the week. With my mum in hospital and my self-employed husband unwell, I responded by pushing myself harder and harder. I stopped functioning properly at work, but I eventually picked up the phone to the employee assistance people and then my GP.
The key thing here is that if we are not functioning well, we need to register that fact, which is not an easy pill to swallow for many of us. We need kindness and care, whatever form it takes. Our mental wellbeing is our own responsibility. I have to look out for this stuff every hour of every day”.
On the topic of stress I have observed a decent bit of debate regarding whether stress can be a good for people. Maggie shared her perspective with me:
“On Radio 4’s ‘The Wrong Job’ recently, Sir Carey Cooper highlighted that the largest cause of sickness absence in the UK today is now workplace stress, i.e. anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges. Stress is not one thing – it’s personal: your stress-inducing task might be my enjoyable challenge!
With too little pressure we stagnate and are not effective – some healthy tension is a productive thing. Then there is a point where expectations are increasing, but fatigue and exhaustion set in, reducing our capacity to thrive. In my experience, it’s not the moderates, but the overachieving types who end up hitting the wall.
Running on a wheel and driving ourselves with adrenaline does not make us happy campers or create good outcomes. Over-working can be a vicious downward spiral toward sick leave or in the most tragic of scenarios, suicide. Perhaps ‘What stresses me?’ and ‘How do I function at my best?’ are the questions we need to be asking ourselves”.
Maggie herself speaks about her experience with burnout, and despite suffering negative consequences, she also learnt some important lessons:
“Time is a finite resource; today is all I have. After too many unhappy days in the past, it’s vital for me to be working in a way that feels good and uses my true talents. I need to be a square peg in a square hole and things feel a lot easier when that’s the case. I have more peace of mind, feel more confidence, and most importantly, I have more to give.
Allowing more time than I think I need to prepare a presentation or get to a meeting has made my life much calmer. I build in space in between events in order to ‘catch up’ or process ideas. I’m allergic to adrenaline now, so I aim to do less and achieve more. At times of high stakes work, the time I’ve spent reflecting and preparing rather than reacting to urgency has paid off always.
My favourite and kindest tool is ‘Do nothing for 15 minutes’ from ‘The Joy Diet’ by Martha Beck. I did it before starting these questions. No screen, no music – just sit and notice thoughts, sensations. I’ve found answers to problems, creative ideas and new projects have all come to me whilst sitting ‘doing nothing’.
I feel that doing the things that keep us well is a matter of life and death. In terms of time spent, work is often our biggest relationship, and having that be a happy one is going to positively impact everyone”.
Now let’s get into some ‘do’s and don’ts’ when it comes to communication in relation to wellbeing. Maggie offered insight on the below question:
What behaviours have your observed in the workplace that have a particularly negative and positive impact on wellbeing?
“On Linked In recently, Simon Sinek says, ‘the responsibility of leadership is to create an environment in which great ideas can thrive’… These are a few observations from listening to a lot of good people mired in workplace struggles and of course, my own experience.
Revisiting the responsibility of leadership, I remember when the CEO of a company I used to work for told me he’d spent two weeks in bed after a divorce. I instantly felt less uncomfortable about my own sick leave, and seeing him as human instantly encouraged me in my own work.
There are people out there right now – today – reading this, who don’t know how they can keep going. We need to be open about our human frailties alongside our successes”.
What language in the workplace do you think senior leaders need to change to create a healthier environment for wellbeing to thrive?
“After witnessing so many disputes built on layers of miscommunication, my hunch is that the language is not as important as its meaning and purpose. Giving clear directions and checking understanding is vital – assumptions are what conflicts are built on.
Talk about what we all mean by ‘mental health’ as the phrase is still often being used to mean ‘mental illness’. My pet peeve in the workplace lexicon is ‘hit the ground running’… Does that mean: ‘there’s no handover’ or ‘we’d like someone to speak at the event tomorrow’ or maybe, ‘you’ve got a week to familiarise yourself’? I’ll often ask people to spell out their meaning or their expectations”.
Before I conclude, I am really pleased to share some formal learning suggestions from Maggie to better grasp the concepts we have been discussing:
“‘Working Ourselves to Death’ by Diane Fassel is an essential read, giving insight for anyone with a tendency towards work addiction. ‘The Joy of Burnout’ by Dina Glouberman helped me hugely in the toughest of times.
Discovering the true impact of being an introvert has helped me make sense of so much. I recommend Susan Cain’s work on a world set up for extroverts. https://www.quietrev.com/
On mediation, two of my favorites are: ‘The Power of a Positive No’ by William Ury and ‘Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life’, Marshall Rosenberg.
I can’t go without mentioning Simon Sinek’s ‘Start With Why’. Both the book and the TED talk will help focus any project, workplace or freelancer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4ZoJKF_VuA … I’ve watched it many times!
Most importantly, we all need to take it easier on ourselves. Self-compassion starts with self-awareness. Brené Brown is great on empathy: she’s brought the discussion of vulnerability as strength to the mainstream. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw. A willingness to have empathy for self and for others both prevents and resolves differences. And most importantly, it makes the world an easier, happier place to live in.
To conclude I will share some final words from Maggie:
“My vision is to create a world where people can be real. If, as studies show, close to 75% of us feel we are in the wrong job, that’s a lot of unhappiness out there. Our happiness and mental health start with being true to ourselves.
In all the positive efforts springing up daily around mental health at work, we’re encouraging people to talk. It is essential then, that we be able to listen without prejudice. We all benefit if we truly feel safe to tell it like it is.
It gives me joy to lead groups or speak on the power of empathic listening, to coach shy speakers (like me) to find their courage; we’re all in this together, in my book. I teach what I too, need to learn”.
How might mediation support you create a workplace where people can truly thrive? Want to learn more about Maggie’s approach and what she offers? Connect with Maggie here.
Co-creating effective HSE teams