Managing distressing material and calls
For some of you, your work will involve reading distressing material, or taking calls from emotionally charged complainants, doctors or witnesses, or managing team members/staff who are struggling. You will probably be well used to doing this in the workplace, but it can feel very different when this happens in your own home.
People describe the sense of not being able to escape the distress, a feeling that home has been “contaminated” by work, a lack of distance from work (that can usually be gained by physically leaving the workplace), and often a strong visual imprint of where you were when you managed the situation which isn’t just in your mind, but there – in your house! On top of this is a sense of isolation or lack of opportunity to debrief and get support. Importantly, that support might happen naturally in the work place, without an explicit expression of need, simply because in the work place you are immersed in a social setting. Now you are working at home, you may need to make a conscious, overt effort to process the situation.
There are a two potential scenarios where this can happen including:
- Knowing you are making or receiving a difficult call/accessing difficult material
- Unexpected challenging calls/material or run of the mill calls/situations that turn challenging
Knowing you are making or receiving a difficult call:
- Make sure you are thoroughly prepared and briefed as you would in the workplace but with more emphasis.
- Alert a manager or colleague to the situation and discuss it with them beforehand.
- Arrange a time to debrief with a colleague/manager after the call.
- Avoid trying to predict or anticipate what someone will do or say – just listen and respond in the moment.
- Don’t forget all the skills you already have!
- Limit the number of challenging calls you make in a day (probably to no more than two).
Knowing you are making or receiving difficult material:
- Find a place in your house that you do not associate with relaxing (try very hard NOT to review distressing material in your bedroom or living room). The kitchen or garden may be useful alternatives.
- Have a discrete place where you store the materials safely – perhaps under the stairs or a kitchen cupboard or filing cabinet if you have one (not under your bed as suggested with other material).
- Only work with difficult materials for short periods of time (no more than an hour at a time before you take a break).
- Intersperse work with distressing materials with lighter tasks or things you enjoy or don’t require brain power i.e. don’t work with the material for more than a total of half a day.
- Make sure you have a colleague or manager to debrief with when necessary.
Unexpected challenging calls or run of the mill calls that turn:
- Listen to your body. As pressure mounts (as it will when presented with a challenge), our bodies usually let us know before our minds (butterflies, tense muscles, forgetting to breathe).
- When your body alerts you to a threat, let that be your reminder to focus your full attention on the individual on the end of the phone. Listen, take notes, try and slow the process down, and remember to breathe (sounds nuts be we often hold our breath when under pressure).
- Use your skills to manage the call.
- After the call, try to find a colleague or manager to debrief with.
- If no one is available, or if it feels right anyway, write a record (for your eyes only) of your experience. You can later dispose of it.
- Understand that these situations take energy and you may need to think about the rest of your daily schedule and reorganise it a bit.
- Give yourself a bit of time to get your balance back (walk, exercise, wash-up, read or sit quietly – whatever works for you).
- If you live with others, let them know you’ve had a bit of a challenging time so they are not left second guessing why you might seem a bit ‘different’.
Unexpected challenging material or run of the mill situations that turn:
Once you recognise that the material you are working with is likely to be challenging for you, follow the tips for Scenario A
Handling our emotions
Since the lockdown started, people have reported feeling all sorts of things from delight to dread. We tend not to need support managing the feelings we label positive, but we often to want to shift negative feelings quickly and when we can’t, that adds to the burden. Below are some general pointers about negative emotions and how to manage them when you’re working from home:
- Consider all your emotions as a signal about what’s going on for you. In other words, your emotion is useful piece of information – that is all.
- Label the emotion if you can – anger, fear, anxiety, irritability, unsettled. Labeling the feeling does two things…
- It distracts you, which can help stop the emotion overwhelming you.
- It can help reduce the physical effects of the emotion – in other words it can help you regulate the feeling. Sometimes it can be hard to describe the feeling, so perhaps instead you can label what it is not!
- Be curious about it. Where did it come from? What triggered it? How does it feel physically? Where do you feel it most? Or any other question you can think of. One of the reasons for doing this is that you are practicing “seeing” the emotion, not “being” it. You are practising detachment. When we become our feeling (angry, anxious etc) we usually feel worse and it is a very inefficient use of our time and energy!
- If you can identify what’s triggered the feeling, try work out if you can do anything about it. For example, if you feel irritable because the radio/TV is too loud you can probably negotiate a compromise. If you are feeling generally anxious about things you can’t change, acknowledge to feeling and redirect your attention to something you can influence.
- Remind yourself that all feelings pass (even the good ones!). Whatever you’re feeling now, it will feel different with hindsight.
- If the emotion feels overwhelming, write about it. When we write about the thoughts and feelings we find distressing, we know, through comprehensive research, that it helps us feel psychologically and physically better.