Mental Health Check

I guess that I am not the only one who has found the grind of a second pandemic lockdown a drain also on mental health and productivity.

The first lockdown was almost fun. For the first time in years I was able to sit at home, work on what I wanted to work on, and go jogging regularly in clean air. There was even the bonus of a new wave of healthcare related information across every media outlet – a field with which I have been passionately involved for 20 years now.

This time is a bit different. First of all it is Winter, so jogging in the park is not so easy. It’s snowing and -10 celsius (-20 fahrenheit) today. Air pollution has not dropped this time, I guess it’s a combination of lignite burning and car emissions. And work is much more stressful this time around. That last point is what I want to write about today.

Where I am

I spent early 2020 building stuff. It was absolutely the right thing to do for somebody with my skills and aptitudes. In a time of uncertainty this settled me a lot.

For the past few months, as a source of income, I’ve switched back into consultant mode. I love two particular aspects of consulting

  • I get to ride a number of advanced AI/ML in Healthcare projects in parallel.
  • I get to avoid certain less desirable aspects of office politics.

The running multiple projects in parallel is important to me in how it develops me as a leader in this field. I run a virtual CTO offering for my clients where I can supervise their teams for months on end, making the important strategic decisions, improving team dynamic, and bringing a level of professionalism to product development which is rarely found in this emerging field. We’re all winners in this, it costs my clients considerably less to get me part time than it would do to have me full time. As an emerging field there is a lack of understanding as to what is required from a good CTO, so I can break new ground and justify a higher overall income without overburdening a single payer. And, I get to use the various statistical laws of large numbers to gain considerably more experience than if I had focused my time on a single team for 2-3 years.

Avoiding office politics is the motivation of which I am less proud. There is and continues to be an unhealthy office power culture here in Germany. I’m perfectly comfortable in US, Irish, UK and Swiss companies. But particularly here in Berlin concepts such as sharing the rewards of an expanded pie do not exist. They think the rest of you are cynically lying when you talk about these things! This problem only exists at certain levels in companies. And it is much stronger in Berlin than in the rest of Germany. But it is something I would rather avoid. There are some fights not worth having.

What I see on calls

As I said, I really want to write about the stress of working through a serious pandemic. Through my consulting I talk with 2 – 10 teams on a weekly basis. The majority of them are here in Berlin, but a growing number are scattered across Europe. Most teams are physically centralised, and would previously have shared an office, but a few of the newer teams are decentralised by default and live in different countries from one another.

There was a huge change in people’s receptiveness following Christmas 2020. Normally teams return in January somewhat looking forward to taking on new challenges. Granted certain individuals will always hate the return to work. But my experience is that January is an underutilised month as team members are actually looking for something to join, and contribute to, this just needs to be channeled.

This year was different. I’m not going to go into the details. I will just say that everybody who I was faced with, despite almost universally having secured incomes for a number of years into the future, was deeply anxious and visibly perturbed.

Progress on projects ground to a halt. It took a week to setup a single stakeholder call. And most teams were incapable of multi-tasking. They particularly struggled with the necessary process of inserting a lower priority task, into the queue, while waiting for the higher one to pay off.

What I did

My response was immediate. I stopped all pressure towards forward momentum on projects. This was necessary. I had team members who were already threatening to walk and we hadn’t even discussed anything yet.

I gave team members time to talk.

Then I asked them to perform one single task per week. They did this and they did it well.

After a couple of weeks, some of the teams started to multi task again. They did this without my pressure.

Now, six weeks later, we’re at the stage where I am offering coffee time-outs to team members. I’ve been down the path of creating companies. It’s stressful as hell. Maybe these teams will continue, maybe they will stop as some point, but we’re all human. Apart from the sociopaths, we all feel things the same way. So mental-health comes before the project.

My take on things

Maybe this article is just an excuse to write the following two points. Normally I would package them better, but I also have to give myself a break in this period.

Purely digital communications appears to lead to a downwards spiral.

Many simple cues are not present.

In person we communicate on many, many bands of communication. Digital reduces the bandwidth enormously. We do not see the guy who is tuned out, or worse, clearly gnawing his lip because as long as he does not speak he doesn’t appear in the foreground of our chat. Some people make this even worse by cutting their video when they are feeling bad.

Ironically, the harsher cues are still very much present.

When we upbraid a colleague about something, we often lean into the camera – to make sure that they are listening – something which is perceived as deeply threatening, but due to lack of feedback we persist in doing.

The niceties disappear.

What do you do on a bad connection? You reduce the amount of niceties first. You don’t engage in the soft patter which sets somebody at ease. You focus on the priority message, which is usually technical or, worse yet, disciplinary in nature.

And our generous nature disappears.

Meanwhile we’re struggling to get our message across. And the colleagues are clearly not taking it in. And they are not respecting our time, and our problems with childcare, responsibilities, etc. And we get angrier still.

And that’s when we hit the bottom.

Comparisons cost

I use comparisons a lot in my work. I want to be the best at what I do, so I break down the skills and I learn from the best on each modality.

So when I coach a team I tend to also reach for this approach in my dealings with the team.

Even at the best of times, this is not an optimal approach. There are very few people who are confident enough in their own skills that they are willing to learn from the best in the world at something. This is something which is taught at top universities and is specifically recruited for by the likes of Google and Amazon.

What I (re)learned in this process is that you cannot call into question a person’s core sense of security and use a comparison-based learning approach with best-in-field at the same time. When their security of their very existence is rocky, they would rather not also try to improve in some new field to reach a professional level of quality or performance.

Wrapping up

I am partly just writing this article to get back in the swing of things. I’ve been missing my blog. But it is hard to produce on all fronts in parallel.

  • I am still going full steam ahead on quite a number of professional writing projects.
  • I still have to earn an income. So I do my expert reviewing, and virtual CTO stuff, to the best of my abilities.
  • We are expecting a baby in the coming days.

I have a lot of incomplete drafts which will hopefully make it out in the coming months. But of course, as a freelancer, the only person who is looking after my mental health is myself, so I will prioritise that!

I am looking for something real to build in Q2+ 2021. I want to stop the multi-tasking and get back to building stuff. So please let me know if you have anything of interest that you would like to work on together.

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