It’s OK to Be Not OK

The importance of stepping away from work in times of stress

You may have heard the news about a rather popular but controversial app being banned by multiple platform providers. One of those providers said in a statement, “AWS does not pre-screen its customers, but it does have terms of service that must be followed…that use of the content you supply does not violate this policy and will not cause injury to any person or entity.”

While you might think I am referring to Parler, the quote above was from ten years ago in reference to Wikileaks. This was the organization that published large troves of classified documents and became infamous in the process. The growing popularity of the site however eventually drew scrutiny of their platform providers, who started to dissociate with Wikileaks.

There has been much debate about free speech and becoming deplatformed. History shows however that many apps over the years have been banned, all for fair and justified reasons. Dog Wars promoted animal cruelty. Girls Around Me was a creepy invasion of privacy. Fortnite tried to circumvent Apple’s monetization rules. The common theme among all of them is that they violated the terms of service.

The even bigger news though were the events in the US the led up to Parler getting booted from all of their technology providers. The world was shocked to see the images emerge from Washington DC on January 6th, a day that will be remembered in history. For many of us, trying to focus on work was an impossible task.

I had another topic to share this week. In light of events that transpired in Washington DC however, I want to offer this essay I wrote for another community I lead. May it give you hope and guidance on dealing with the anxiety of world and local events as well as the stresses at home and in work.

There are not many times I touch upon political discussions here. This is a community with a focus is on professional development and networking. However moments arise when the events of the day intersect with our work lives in unexpected ways.

You have undoubtedly seen the footage of rioters storming the US Capitol last Wednesday. They rampaged through the halls of the US federal government without much resistance, threatening employees, causing damage, and leading to the deaths of now five people. All because of a delusional belief that the person they supported for President had the election stolen from him. An election by the way that no court has found credible evidence of any widespread fraud.

There are many things that we can agree to disagree with in life. In a free and civil society, we can have varying opinions about any topic and still live in relative harmony. Even on the most contentious topics or bitterly fought elections, we may get emotional and our thoughts darken, but we accept that our disagreements are the healthy consequence of our freedom and democracy.

Through that disagreement, we can often craft better solutions. At Amazon, one of our leadership principles is called “Disagree and Commit”. We understand that it is better to make a decision than to endlessly debate. Once that decision is made, we all support that decision and support each other towards success. The US election was one such decision and the results were very clear.

What occurred last week and over the past several weeks since the November 3rd US Presidential elections is not reasonable disagreement. It is a willful disregard of reality spurred on by some irresponsible elected officials and certain news outlets that have fueled fantasy driven conspiracy theorists in online forums and social networks. Given credence by these talking heads rather than actual facts, resentment and anger have boiled over into what we saw transpire in the Capitol riots.

I have no crystal ball to help me see what upfolds between today and the Presidential Inauguration. My hope is that those involved in the riots are brought to justice and that we have seen the last of such violence. I look forward to hearing more about how we can bridge the divides in the US and focus on faster distribution of the COVID vaccine and strengthening the economy. It is time to move forward.

That being said, the images and videos of last week are hard to erase. I shared on Twitter that it has been hard to concentrate the past few days. I was not in Washington DC. No one I know was involved in, directly affected by, or located anywhere near the riots. But there was a palpable sense of anxiety and shock at seeing what was unfolding. I kept thinking, are we going to be alright as a country?

Many of you may not be so outwardly concerned. We are professionals, and we have a job to do. Especially at the beginning of the year, this is the time to reflect on results, hone new skills, and plan strategy. Deep down though, there is a space within our consciousness that is distracted by these events. Emotion not something we simply turn on or off, it’s a range like on a dimmer switch.

If that speaks to you, then know that this is OK. It is fine to admit you are unsettled and worried. In discussions with other community members since the riots, they shared with me the overwhelming stress to focus and perform on the job, but at the same time distracted and concerned with events in the news. Some mentioned that their managers or leaders even said something to the effect of “get back to work”.

I remember the day after 9/11 happened, the CEO of my company sent a companywide email about the event. At the end of his email, he said that it was imperative that everyone get back to work as the end of Q3 was coming up. In NYC, reading that was a gut punch. I wrote back saying that many of us were unsettled by the random bomb threats and continued uncertainty around the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil. Some of us lost friends. Half the people I knew at one of my customers were dead. Instead of acknowledging the grief, he simply doubled down on the need to get back to work.

Being authentic as I shared some weeks back means not dividing your professional and personal lives. What affects us in one realm of our lives impacts all aspects of our lives. If we compartmentalize and hide our emotions, we incur an emotional and mental tax that must be paid for later. Over time, it negatively affects our health, our performance, and our relationships with others.

It is common to ask each other “how are you doing”. We often use it in emails to friends and family. Our response is usually “fine” or “OK”, even when it is not. It is OK to be not OK at times and to be authentic in sharing that. Doing so is not an affront to professionalism, it is being who you are.

Even if you felt unfazed by last week’s events and think it is just politics that will resolve itself, that may not be how others feel. It could be your teammate, your customer, your manager or direct report. In our work lives, whether individual contributor or manager, understanding the perspective of others is a critical skill for building trust, credibility, and rapport. That is how we influence our colleagues to move forward on our ideas or to foster change in our teams.

Give yourself permission for a mental health day. Whether it is because of recent events or anxiety in some aspect of your work or home life, take the time to work through the emotions rattling your mind so that you can get to a place where you can focus and proceed with clarity. Don’t push through internal struggles because you think it is merely emotions. In the same way you would not keep working if you had a serious physical condition requiring physician care, mental health requires attention. Part of the mindset for success is knowing when you are not 100% and taking the needed rest.

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Thoughts on developers, digital transformation, enterprise agility, community building & software engineering culture. Author 👉

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