The rules of engagement: re-drawing the lines
So, this time Freedom Day finally came and went and we are now all returning to some kind of new normal. After the last eighteen months we have all been through, relying on Zoom to keep us in the loop with friends, family members and work colleagues, this is welcome news. Social restrictions have been removed on small get-togethers and large-scale events. Things really are finally moving forward.
However, as excited as we are at the prospect of talking again to people without the constant threat of someone admonishing us for being “on mute”, we cannot get away from the trepidation involved in this. Because, whether we like it or not, it is very likely over the past year and a half, the rules of engagement have changed somewhat.
Mental health in the headlines
The topic of mental health seems never too far from the headlines these days. What was already a huge social issue has been exacerbated further by a pandemic and succussive lockdowns. Alongside mental health, the other topic that is hitting the headlines is the return of sport. And it seems the world of sport and mental wellbeing are converging as never before as the media has a field day talking about the ‘mental strength’ of the competitors as much as their physical prowess.
Take the tennis world, for example. Within months, we had a Japanese tennis player, Naomi Osaka, fined for not wanting to talk about her mental health problems to the media, withdrawing from the French Open and calling for “privacy” and “empathy” from the press, saying she never wants her personal medical history to be scrutinised again. And another, Englishwoman Emma Raducanu, castigated by ex-pro John McEnroe for not being able to handle the occasion in her debut at Wimbledon, although at a ranking of 338 she made it to the last 16. In turn McEnroe himself was castigated by doctors on social media. We may be asking: where are the lines? And not just the white ones on the court.
And just this week the links between mental health, sport and the headlines are fresh in our minds again with the most successful American gymnast of all time, Simone Biles, withdrawing from the individual all-around Olympic final in Tokyo, citing the need to focus on her mental health. Inevitably the story has topped all the news bulletins and USA Gymnastics has released a statement on Twitter supporting Biles’ decision which reads: ‘We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritising her wellbeing.’ Just one more high-profile example for us all to reflect on where the lines are between our duty to public roles and our duty to our own private wellbeing.
The obligation to reveal our thoughts and feelings
Of course, the world of sport is something of a goldfish bowl, but could it be that it is also a microcosm of what is going on in society as a whole? It seems nobody is any longer too sure what the rules are around talking about the private world in the public sphere. Are we all obliged to say how we are feeling or what we are thinking to anyone and everyone? Is it ok to glibly conjecture as to another’s inner mental state on television to a national audience? Are we entitled to prioritise our own wellbeing over the expectation others have of us? Whatever we think of sportspeople, it is taking figures like Osaka, McEnroe and Biles to open up this debate.
Back in the real world, many of us will be experiencing similar conflicts within our own frame of reference and we may feel we are in our own goldfish bowls, playing by a set of rules we no longer fully understand. Yes, we are all delighted and relieved to be seeing our friends and colleagues again; but so much has changed for us since we last logged off in the office in March 2020. Are we required to talk about all of it immediately? Or do we just try to smooth over it all, hoping that people intuitively know where we are at? It’s a difficult one.
A spotlight that never goes out
Being able to talk face-to-face with each other again is a great opportunity to say how we feel about the last year and a half and to find much needed support and connection. But for many the new normal may feel like a spotlight shining on us which never goes out. Some of us need a validating environment around us all the time to feel good about ourselves, even when we do not. And many have the tools at their disposal to manage this. But others may not feel this need; and yet others may even feel uncomfortable revealing their innermost thoughts and feelings.
We stand in unprecedented times. It is only natural that work colleagues and social contacts will want to know how we are feeling after being away for so long and that everyone is comfortable with the new way of doing things. This is a totally organic process, and for the most part, this kind of concern is necessary to make sure the right systems are put in place for our collective wellbeing. But as we all return to our workplaces and social spaces, we also have to remember getting back to business is one thing, but getting back to talking about business is something else.