How can you possibly be at your best if you are anxious? Anxious about paying your bills, keeping a roof over your head, and pressure from your line manager to produce. Anxious about shareholder expectations. Anxiety over your marriage and your kids. Anxiety about climate change, recycling enough, pollution hunger and geopolitical meltdown.
We all experience anxiety, but our modern world and the lifestyles we adopt assail us with pressures we increasingly cannot cope with. The result is an emotional storm. We try to ride it out with a rictus grin on our faces. Telling the world “I’m fine”, we self-medicate, drink more, work more, and smoke more. Home life and our relationships stutter adding petrol to the anxiety fire. And we’re still expected to maintain our productivity, because, after all our employer is paying us.
Now we add guilt and shame of impending failure to the mix. The fashionable word is burnout. It’s almost reaching that stage with all popular nouns when it becomes so common it loses its potency. Let me explain.
Anxiety hijacks our executive thinking. We struggle with decisions, lose commitment to complex tasks, and generally become dumber! We procrastinate and avoid tough tasks, or we just hit more of the same head-on. This is happening to everyone, and the result is retrenchment to habitual thinking, automatic response, and I’m sorry to say prejudice based on entrenched beliefs. When once we were flexible, we are now immovable by any new data or argument. If this happens within organisations everything slows down, becoming somehow stickier, and more difficult. It feels like we are all working at high speed, but this is a fallacy, a symptom of our shared anxiety.
Good mental health is a place where we’re able to easily navigate through all that the world throws at us. Anxiety is our body and mind’s way of telling us we’re not coping with the pressure. Anxiety is useful when we recognise it early, but it has no mental vocabulary, making it easy to ignore initially. We need that adrenalin surge at the moment, for example, when we think we might be attacked. Adrenalin and our sympathetic nervous system work hand in hand to drive emotional dysregulation until eventually, the wheels come off our wagon! The important question is, “can we halt this process as and when we desire?”
When we’re calm and emotionally balanced, we have access to all the levers of good mental health. However, when it all becomes too much the external barrage makes our mental levers too slippery to hold onto. As we drop further into anxiety, we inexorably lose control. We know it’s happening but feel we can’t show it to others. How then might we rebalance our emotions to get back on an even keel? How soon can we be once again productive?
We’re all pretty good at managing sudden anxiety triggers, humans are hardwired to sense fear and do something about it (fight, flight or freeze). What we’re less well equipped for is persistent complex and ever-changing sources of pressure that eat away at our confidence and energy. Long-term emotional management skills like mindfulness can work wonders but it can take a while to feel positive results. Many give up because the reality of pressure is more immediate. Don’t get me wrong I’m a lifelong advocate of mindfulness, it has worked wonders for me, but it really should be begun when things are going OK and not in the full impact of traumatic events. It requires commitment at a time when we can’t raise the enthusiasm and energy for the long haul. We’re already within the grip of anxiety and possibly depression.
Coaching and mentoring and therapy work wonders, but they are expensive, require full commitment and are not available at the moment of need. We all need a non-addictive emotional circuit breaker. Something designed for our personal needs. A tool placing rapid emotional regulation in our hands when we feel we need it.
Any successful solution needs to be available to many, and scalable addressing the broad societal problem facing us. Something sitting in your workplace. A privileged spot where you soften the emotional burdens you bring to, or experience during work. Bringing you back to an emotionally even keel, no matter what has happened.
It will feel more like you’re already standing on the beach at the beginning of the day rather than beginning it neck-deep in the emotional waves foretelling your drowning. You may not be firing on all cylinders but at least there’s fuel in the tank, and you can face the day.
Recently I came across one technology giving me cause for optimism, Cubbie. To be clear I have no contractual relationship with this company, but I have had conversations with their CEO David McIntyre and Jonathan Slobom their Marketing Director and feel it has many of the characteristics we might look for in our emotional “circuit breaker”.
We see the back of a person sitting inside a Cubbie facing a large screen showing a sea turtle swimming.
Simply put Cubbies are a sophisticated marriage between intelligent software and a carefully designed controlled environment. People sit in the Cubbie discovering stimuli such as light patterns, colour and music that either calm or energise them. These bespoke conditions are saved to the cloud to be drawn upon at any time by the user. They can use any other Cubbie around the world. Of course, you’re thinking, “Does it work?”
Let me put it this way. If you look at your car today, almost every major innovation came from Formula 1 racing. Formula 1 pushes cars to the limits of engineering and computation. Subsequently, the best innovations are transferred to the mass market. The team at Cubbie has followed a similar developmental route.
Autistic children face the biggest emotional challenges and schools are a hotbed of social and sensory overwhelm for them. Moreover, Cubbie and teachers are finding non-autistic children also experiencing anxiety to the point where due to their “difficult behaviours” they can’t remain in class. In many schools, the response is to remove them from the class, effectively isolating them until they may or may not calm down. This might help the teacher, but it creates even more deep-seated feelings of uselessness in the pupil. They may calm down for a while but now develop an emotional hair trigger waiting for the next day. Eventually, their “difficult behaviour” results in exclusion from school and who knows what kind of adult life to follow. To be clear emotional turmoil does not equate with intelligence or a desire to excel. Emotions can’t be suppressed intentionally but they can be distracted whilst our mind regains mastery. As a society, we fail to address the emotional toll on our children at our peril.
Cubbies are in dozens of schools in Ireland and now in the UK. They are used by pupils either before they go to class or when they experience emotional overwhelm symptoms. After ten minutes in a Cubbie, sometimes more, sometimes less, children regain emotional regulation and can return to class. Anecdotally, some parents note their children’s behaviour at home changes. For example, some children do homework where before they rebelled against doing it.
I spent more than thirty years working in evidence-based scientific research and I find the hard and soft data obtained by Cubbie increasingly compelling. Having been tested almost to destruction in the hothouse of schools it is time to introduce them to the workplace.
A typical scenario might look like this…
An SME employs 30 people in its office and more at several manufacturing and delivery centres across the country. The company is growing rapidly, and pressures are mounting. Staff feel the pressure but grit their teeth and press on. Due to this pressure, some may be quietly quitting. Others just quit. Staff turnover is high, and the cost of recruitment is an unnecessary and unsupportable financial burden. Leavers cite the intense atmosphere and toxic culture as major reasons for jumping ship.
One month later a Cubbie is installed.
Staff want to use this new tool. Some may go in before work, some during the day when they feel anxious, and some use it before their journey home. All benefit from spending more of the day emotionally regulated. Increasingly they report feeling “On top of things,” “I’m ready for that tricky client conversation” or “I felt able to focus on that complex problem.” When this happens, the organisation concentrates, and more good things happen. People want to stay with the company even when things get tough. You see where I’m going with this.
I’ve used Cubbie here as an example of a circuit breaker. It also struck me that staff do not need to declare if they are neurodivergent or especially stressed they can all use the system autonomously with no shame attached! As for the company, they’re simply providing a tool to keep their team match fit.
If you’re a business leader, relying on doing more of the same to get more productivity, just won’t cut it in the new world. Especially, if your competition is taking action by changing their approach to mental health and agility. Ignoring anxiety in yourself and your workforce will eventually cripple your dream. That would be a shame. Now is the time to take meaningful action. Stop paying lip service to mental health. Instead grasp the nettle and do something practical to create a mental health revolution in your business. Invest in yourself and your people to reap the rewards.
Mental health is not a buzzword or some touchy-feely fake news. It’s your last big competitive advantage. If you don’t leap, your competitors will.
There’s a problem for autistic, neurodivergent and anxious people and we’ve solved it. Regulation is personalised, predictable and reliable – Regulation is achieved in less than 15 minutes. People spend more time participating in life and less managing their sensory needs.
Gary Coulton is the Puerto Rican receptionist at Cubbie.