Why do we push people away when we need them most?

It is an indisputable truth that strong social connections are vital for mental wellbeing.  As humans we crave social interaction, and there is increasing evidence that it is essential for physical health as well as mental health. Studies have shown the effect of loneliness and isolation on mortality is similar to the impact of risk factors such as obesity and smoking. 

Quite apart from the direct mortality rates caused by Covid-19 and the knock-on effect of people putting off seeing doctors for other potentially serious symptoms, there will be an incalculable impact on longevity caused by the loneliness and isolation of lockdown and social distancing. Mental health charities have reported huge increases in calls to their helplines with heightened levels of fear, anxiety and depression associated with the effects of the pandemic and of the measures put in place to save lives. The Government recently announced details of £5 million of funding available as grants to organisations which are working to tackle loneliness during lockdown.   

Perhaps the biggest source of social interaction outside our immediate family and friendship groups is work.  Thousands of people have gone from working outside of the home, seeing different people every day, to suddenly having to cope with the same four walls and virtual interaction or no interaction at all caused by furlough schemes and redundancies. 

People who are already living with mental health problems are finding this period especially difficult.  Many of the coping mechanisms we took for granted – a hug, meals with friends, singing in a choir, going to the gym, have been taken away.  On the other side I am hugely heartened by the resurgence of a real sense of community: volunteer groups taking swift action, neighbours communicating for the first time and the swell of support for the NHS and key workers.  

 I firmly believe that we all have a role to play in looking after our own mental wellbeing and in looking out for those around us.  

It can be useful to take a look at your own response to stress and anxiety.  Get to know your triggers and notice how you react when you are feeling low, anxious or off-key.  We are all different – some people withdraw, whilst others become antagonistic. If you think about it, both are behaviours that tend to have the effect of pushing people away, just at the time when you actually need them most. Talk to your nearest and dearest and tell them what your warning signs are likely to be (if they don’t already know better than you!) so that they can provide the support you need. 

It’s important to recognise this tendency to push people away in our colleagues and our loved ones.  Chances are, if their behaviour is uncharacteristically adversarial or distanced, they are probably struggling.  The trouble is we often jump to conclusions about others’ behaviour choosing to believe that they are ‘rude’ or ‘disrespectful’, or that they ‘need some time alone’.  Talk to them and get to know what their warning signs are.  As leaders and line managers we have a role in paving the way for such discussions by being open about our own struggles. 

If you notice someone who appears to be struggling, find an opportunity to speak privately to them. Call them, or arrange a socially distanced walk.  Ask them how they are, disregard their first answer “fine” and ask again!  Listen without judgement and don’t try to offer fixes or solutions – often we just need to be heard. I have been privileged to have been included in some very supportive teams throughout the lockdown, and for one group our simple weekly check-in has been a source of joy and laughter, as well as reflection and sadness, but always a space where I feel valued and never judged.

As we navigate our way out of lockdown businesses’ Health and Safety departments are quite rightly putting a lot of effort into ensuring people’s physical health is not put at risk.  However we must also attend to mental wellbeing and the psychological safety* of our people.   Whilst leaders have an important role in influencing organisational culture from the top down, we can all contribute by taking care of each other and valuing each and every one of our colleagues as fellow human beings. 


*Psychological safety is a term first coined by the organizational behavioral scientist, Amy Edmondson, which means the “belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” https://youtu.be/LhoLuui9gX8

Helen is a Mental Health First Aider and Wellbeing Coach.  She firmly believes that wellbeing at work is not a fluffy ‘nice to have’ but a pre-requisite for performance and productivity.