It’s Mental Health Week in the UK and in this blog Thrive’s GRAHAM FAWCETT reflects on a topic he often encounters in counselling with humanitarian and aid workers: loneliness.
A sixty year old told me during a debriefing session of her distinguished and highly impactful career. Her thoughts were now turning to retirement. “I dread it”, she told me. “What will I do? All my friends are colleagues. They’re scattered around the planet.”
Another client told me of his frustration that his work too often confined him to a compound. And so he spent much of a typical day separated from local people in a way that felt wrong to his sense of ‘Ubuntu’.
Friendship is important. In fact a key question we ask people in our Psychosocial Assessments at Thrive is this: “tell me about your friends?”.
The ability to form long-lasting, mutual, sustaining, nurturing relationships is central to our wellbeing. This is especially true in work that involves frequent travel or postings away from home. An absence of these relationships is the leading contributor to mortality in older age, and to significant ill health in adulthood.
We don’t need many friends. Four or five is plenty. But we do need to feel seen, to have ‘in-jokes’, and to enjoy shared memories. We need relationships that are not transactional or a by-product of working in close proximity with others.
When you have a job that absorbs your energy, your sense of self, and your time, then you typically need two sets of friendships: professional colleagues who know you in your work setting; and those who know you as the person you are, outside of your job.
In work, it’s important to be able to kick back, be nerdy, talk about the specifics of your job without having to make an effort to explain yourself. We need that sense of being understood, heard and appreciated. None of this works ‘back home’. At home, your loved ones might struggle to imagine your life, to understand what it’s like to live in a compound or to navigate checkpoints. And they might struggle to speak of their own lives, which could seem dull in comparison.
At home we need a different person – people who understand us and are simply concerned if we are fulfilled or happy. Of all our friendships, nurturing the ones who will be there when we come back from our final mission, deployment, placement is key. Nurturing friendships which give us perspective, which rejuvenate and which refresh us during our careers are deeply helpful.
This need for connection can lead us to arriving at difficult places. Many long term humanitarian aid workers and missionaries have said to me that they have stopped saying ‘hello’ to people around them at times, because ‘hello’ is always followed by ‘goodbye’. For them, a new colleague is just another reminder of transition and grief, rather than a new opportunity for professional or personal enrichment.
Others hurtle into their 30s or later realising that settling to a permanent location with a partner and children is becoming statistically evermore improbable, but that working ever harder on the next project is becoming less and less fulfilling as well. Still others try to find fulfilment in sex, chemicals or working harder to try and block their thoughts.
So if you’re feeling lonely, what should you do? If you can bear it, stop. Stop just for a moment. The report, the clinic, and the project. They can call wait. Who can you connect with today? Who can you say hello to, to find out how they are? And to enjoy their world?
Unhelpful answers include ‘no one’, ‘I’m too busy’, or ‘next month’. Concerning answers include ‘I can’t be bothered’, ‘It’s too painful’ or ‘I really am too busy’.
If you can bear it, connect somehow today – send a voice note, a text, or a GIF to someone who nurtures you and whom you nurture in turn. They will be surprised maybe, but also pleased.
If you can’t bear stopping, can’t connect or have no one to connect with then have a chat with one of our coaches or psychosocial practitioners who are well versed in what you are encountering and ways of managing it.