Overcoming Isolation in the Workplace: A Daily Focus

Regular AMHC writer Sarthak Matravadia focuses this week’s blog post on finding support in your workplace.

Supporting my mental health while surviving the daily rigors of academic life was difficult. I changed fields for my PhD and felt behind from day one. I lacked the theoretical framework to follow discussions at meetings, and my lab training was nonexistent. I employed classic strategies like frivolous note taking, nodding along on cue, and praying I didn’t have to answer any questions. Though I was determined to get better at everything, constantly feeling behind made it hard to gain traction. The bar was continually set higher. Wins felt insignificant, yet every failure seemed a catastrophe. In chasing this bar, I failed to respect my own limits; maybe because I never defined them.

Longer lab hours, coursework assignments, literature readings, brainstorming new research ideas, and the isolation of comprehensive exams: every new challenge taxed my depleting pool of mental resources. Before I realized it, a myriad of issues needed addressing. I would think to myself, “It’s time to slow down… but where do I start? Taking the first steps to support my mental health was empowering, but didn’t provide instant gratification. Far from it it was frightening to realize how many challenges I was facing. The journey to emotional harmony seemed mountainous, and I was merely at the foothills. I convinced myself to focus on one step at a time. Placing my efforts into a day-to-day timescale was more realistic and helped instill greater patience and appreciation of my progress. 

Feeling isolated in the workplace was a daily burden. Over time, I learned this was a common problem among my peers, despite being herded together in communal lab spaces and offices. Peer support is crucial in lessening the mental health impact of workplace isolation.

pexels-photo-23971
A black and white photo shows two children walking down a dirt path together. One of them has their arm around the other.

I felt so alone despite working with a large team in a busy department. At the surface, differences in personality triggered my deep-seated fear of judgement. I reacted by putting on my game face to portray infallibility. It wasn’t until I was a senior PhD candidate that I felt less alone among my peers. Seniority allowed me to just be, with less pressure of fitting in. Stronger bonds formed with students in my cohort, and the clique of older students had finally graduated. It led to a more supportive and inclusive work culture.

I found myself gradually showing flaws in my armour – albeit strategically, and to peers that I trusted. As I equipped myself with tools to better understand my mental health, it became easier to articulate my thoughts to my peers. I focused on sharing actions I hoped would improve my mental wellbeing. Over time, others responded well to my goaloriented attitude by confiding in me. This humanized my perception of the workplace, and I gained valuable perspective on my colleagues by carefully letting them see my vulnerability. The peers I once viewed as emotionless, data-generating robots fueled by doses of caffeine and alcohol were real people. Collectively showing vulnerability became easier and we bonded as collaborators rather than as competitors. From an academic standpoint, we faced the same trials and tribulations. The failed experiment days, endless troubleshooting, long hours of writing, and friction with advisors felt less severe knowing you could lean on your peers. Today, I appreciate how this helped me survive the PhD grind. Below is a recounted framework of the strategy I found effective. In the end, it was about basic human connection; something we frequently overlook in the academic machine.  

  • Be brave. For yourself. This is the pre-game motivation. You must be brave if you have any desire to improve your mental health. This means accepting that your mental health may be more fragile than you thought. It means being your own best friend, and prioritizing your health and wellbeing above all. Doing so may require going against the grain, and against the dominant expectation of output and productivity. It begins by being brave for the battle within. When you want to give up and you can’t describe, let alone understand how you feel. Be patient and love yourself. The understanding develops with time, and requires effort.
  • Find the right peers. During the first week of my PhD, a frustrated post-doc lectured me on how academia had ruined their life, and essentially told me to run while I still could. Maybe they were on to something? Still, I pretty much avoided them whenever possible. Finding the right person is key to establishing a support system at work. This is where keen observation and analytical skills help since you will probably rely on gut instinct. 
  • Test the waters and build trust. Testing the waters with your peers isn’t risky, and reveals how receptive they are to becoming an ally. Not everyone is looking for peer support, and that’s okay too. This is the built-in safety mechanism in case your gut feeling was wrong. (In which case, you may want to have your gut microbia tested.) But minding the right environmental conditions also helps:
    • Speaking one-on-one, ideally away from prying ears
    • Timing is everything. Striking up a conversation while your friend is responding to “Reviewer #2” for their manuscript submission may not work out so well
    • Try safe and relatable subjects. For example, “Wow, it has been very stressful lately trying to troubleshoot my protocol to get useable data” or, “Gosh, I am finding it difficult to keep up with the latest literature and stay on top of things.
  • Disclose. I disclosed my struggles to a fellow PhD student after an extremely demanding study. We both worked on it for months, and developed a friendship during that time. We learned how we each preferred our coffees, about favourite music, career goals, and our partners and families. It felt right, and to my surprise they were struggling too; they had also relied on a strong game face. I acknowledge that peer support gains efficacy as your bond strengthens. It takes time to build a foundation and trust, but when the time is right, be brave in disclosing aspects of your mental health struggles.
  • Manage your expectations about support. Be conscientious not to overburden your new buddy by ranting and melting down at every possible opportunity. Keep in mind the big picture; this is only one of the possible tools in your arsenal. One that can be very effective when merged with other strategies that help support your mental health. 
  • Support goes both ways. Don’t forget to lend a supportive ear to help ensure your dynamic is balanced. Be mindful that your personal goals may not align with those of your peers. You may seek real changes at work and home, and employ strategies accordingly; others may not. A word of caution to this end: engaging in endless ranting without taking any action is futile. To elicit change requires action and goal oriented thinking. Keep this in mind, and if nothing else, lead by example.

*          *         *

I used to wake up dreading the day awaiting me at the lab. I often felt defeated before setting foot in the building. In reaching out to my trusted peers, this feeling became less severe. Most were surprised to learn of my mental health struggles as I concealed them so well.

I had taken steps to change the way I existed in the work environment. Peer support provided context for the oft-used “Thank you for the camaraderie” shout-outs at defences. In knowing I could lean on my peers, a greater confidence prevailed in how I approached grad student life. It became easier to put myself out there and share ideas, data interpretations, and pose questions I would not have otherwise asked. I can safely say that my journey through grad school greatly benefitted from taking steps to break through the walls of workplace isolation.

 This post was written with the hope of helping those struggling with workplace isolation. I included ideas worth considering based on my own experiences, and I strongly encourage you to share any thoughts and ideas that may have helped for you.

 

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